The Artist Using Mushrooms to Address LA’s Poor Air Quality

YUCCA VALLEY, Calif. — This past month, Lazy Eye Gallery opened Fungus Garden, featuring work by Los Angeles artist Alice Könitz, whose geometric sculptures are filled with growing mycelium mushrooms.

Yucca Valley sits in the middle of the arid Morongo Basin, a few miles west of the ever-popular Joshua Tree in the high deserts of the Mojave Desert. Here, the air in late February smells like creosote and yucca and the sky is clear, while it rains all weekend down in LA.

Inside the diminutive Lazy Eye Gallery, a cozy space made from a converted water tower, stands a little wooden chamber about six feet tall with amoeba-shaped openings that let in sunlight and allow, of course, for art-viewing. As mycelium needs relatively airtight and moist environments to thrive and avoid mold, tiny spores are carefully placed flat within glass trapezoidal glass panes fitted with metal-edged closures. 

Könitz cites the Bobcat wildfire of 2020 in Los Angeles County, which made the air both visible and tangible, as the event that launched her interest in air quality. “I started thinking about the movement of air and our ability to modulate airflow through built structures,” Könitz told Hyperallergic. She first studied prairie dog tunnel systems, then landed on termite mounds as a model for her work. 

Indeed, to maintain an ideal temperature for the growth of Reishi mushrooms, as the Valley can get cold in winter, the wooden box was constructed with roundish windows, “in termite-like fashion,” said Könitz. 

Lazy Eye Gallery is itself an outcropping of the compound it sits on. Yucca Valley Material Lab is run by artist Heidi Schwegler, who opened the lab in 2019. Since then, she has steadily grown its campus with camper trailers (one, a sleeping library built from books left behind from the Oregon College of Art and Craft, where she used to teach), a recording studio, a metals foundry, and a record label named Yucca Alta, all made in collaboration with visiting artists, friends, former students, and colleagues. Naturally, Könitz met Schwegler when she took classes in glass casting and felting. 

“I was interested in learning how to work with different materials, especially glass,” said Könitz. “Initially I thought I could just use old glass bottles and melt them, but apparently that’s not so easy.”

Until the Clean Air Act of 1970 and its various amendments since, characterizations of the toxic haze over Los Angeles depicted in popular culture were more than accurate. Today, roughly 9% of children in the city have asthma or breathing-related illnesses. But Könitz’s mycelium experiment-turned-sculpture represents innovations in air quality: Mushroom walls, for example, have been proven to be sustainable air purifiers and an alternative insulation material. 

Since its founding, Yucca Valley Material Lab has served as a hub for artists in Los Angeles and beyond who want to learn new skills — or simply hang out with other artists and musicians. For Schwegler and her partner, Derek Monypeny, it’s a labor of love.

“I’m a really intense worker, and as a material junkie, I love the weaving of my studio practice with an expanding arts non-profit on our property — though I admit I do get overwhelmed,” Schwegler told Hyperallergic. It’s a one-stop shop: “You can make it, think about it, research it, look at it, listen to it, meet other artists and musicians and just be out here in this incredible desert.”

While Könitz’s project is the result of years of research, she was also inspired by the location of Lazy Eye. “I have loosely assembled these things like a dimensional, semi-functional collage in an effort to get an understanding of airflow in different but related contexts,” she said. “The desert is of course another fascinating, very extreme, and precarious climate and ecosystem.”

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