Seeing the Unseen: The Art of Mei-ling Hom

By Kate Nation

Last October, Mei-ling Hom and her partner, David McClelland, drove to North Carolina from their farm in upstate New York to begin their art residency at McColl Center. As they crossed into North Carolina, they stopped at a rest area and found a sulphur shelf mushroom. They knew they were in the right place.  

Hom and McClelland began collecting mushrooms when they met in college in the seventies. Many years later, this shared interest made its way into Hom’s art in a series of environmental sculptures, including her most recent work as a 2015 Environmental Artist-in-Residence here at McColl Center. One project, a collaborative effort installed at Anita Stroud Park near uptown Charlotte, consists of straw sculptures injected with fungi that will erupt in mushrooms then decompose, amending the soil in the process. (Hom and McClelland explain more below.)

Installation (bottom) at Anita Stroud Park (Photo: McColl Center for Art + Innovation)

The artists’ studio at McColl Center is part workspace, part lab, and part farm. Illustrations of nematodes hang near sketched ideas for sculptural forms, while the bell tower above the studio space houses the couples’ traveling garden. I spoke to Hom and McClelland in their studio amidst half-made forms, dried specimens, spores, sprouting beans, and worm farms. 

Your interest in mushrooms spans decades. What was the impetus for introducing them into your work?

Hom: In the early 2000s I explored cloud forms. My interest was in perceived experience of the natural world. Clouds play on visual perspective, as they are mercurial and fleeting. In the last few years my perception shifted to the earth. I began to think about how the mycelium webs of mushrooms are like a cloud underfoot. This complicated underground network of mushroom root filaments is invisible turbulence that becomes visible with the fruiting of the mushroom itself. There is an entire unseen realm below us. The installations that David and I create admit people to this invisible world by expressing it above ground. 

Describe the project and process.

McClelland: Mei-ling designed two types of straw sculptures that we create by coiling and sewing straw. One form is a hive shape that we pack with a pasteurized straw and inoculate with mushroom spawn. The second is an open, woven form which is filled with soil and planted with vascular plants. These transplants are inoculated with endomycorrhizal fungi to demonstrate the symbiotic growth benefits between the plant and the fungi. Once installed, the sculptures are left to grow and flourish. After several blooming cycles, the straw sculptures will decompose and return to the earth.

Hom and McClelland installing the open, woven forms at Anita Stroud Park (Photo: McColl Center for Art + Innovation)

The open, woven forms filled with soil at Anita Stroud Park (Photo: McColl Center for Art + Innovation)

Hom: Our interest extends beyond the artwork to gathering data from the water runoff that will flow through these pieces. The mycelia or the root mass of the mushrooms can “clean” the water and soil by absorbing and digesting unwanted elements. The 7th grade science class at Trinity Episcopal School will collect water samples from the runoff at Anita Stroud Park and the McGuire Laboratory at Duke Energy will assist in data analysis. We are most concerned with testing for bacteria such as E. coli and excess nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorus. 

What fascinates you most about mushrooms?

Hom: The mushroom mycelia can digest bacteria and hydrocarbons, delink cellulose and lignin into basic elements, channel difficult to access nutrients to vascular plants, trap and digest nematodes, and, in fruiting, provide mushrooms as food. Such a puny thing contributes so much to a sustainable growth and decay cycle in nature. 

McClelland: Mushrooms were among the first living things to evolve on Earth. They have been quietly doing their jobs for billions of years modulating the carbon cycle and making possible the life of both animals and green plants. We wouldn’t be here if they hadn’t preceded us.

How has your art evolved through this process?

Hom: This work has a definitive life cycle. That feels very grounded and healthy. The organic, fleeting nature of these pieces means our work does not burden the earth but will leave a legacy of improved soil and water quality.

(Main photo: Ben Premeaux for McColl Center for Art + Innovation)