Mycelium Jewelry Development, Creative Experimentation Continues
Production of mycelium jewelry forms has ramped up in the studio lab in the past few months. I have created over 50 plastic molds of clay models that the inoculated substrate material can be cast in, which has allowed for greater variety and quantity of experimental mycelium jewelry forms. Mycelium is the parent organism of mushrooms and is everywhere around us, mostly underground quietly eating dead organic material.
Most recently I added an incubator to create a more consistent grain spawn colonization environment. I also discovered that you can buy tight-fitting plastic covers for the aluminum sheet pans that have become the backbone of my grow operation. These covers replaced the difficult-to-use and wasteful plastic-wrap system I started with. I am now able to keep 6-8 trays growing at any given time with 20-40 mycelium jewelry forms per tray resulting in about 250 forms per month!
Currently, I am working with Turkey Tail, Reishi, Grey Oyster, and Terrigan Oyster mycelium, plus a few more, as I am always experimenting at any given time.
Increasing the strength of the finished forms has been a goal and challenge from the start. Most recently I have been encasing sterilized wooden splints (coffee stirrers) into the substrate to improve strength. This has been an improvement but adds other complications with shrinkage during drying. Strengthening experiments continue by adding chopped fiberglass and chopped straw to the substrate. The growth process takes nearly a month, so the results take time to evaluate, stay-tuned.
I have learned that for maximum strength, you cannot just dry the finished pieces in the oven or a food dehydrator. Quick-drying makes the pieces brittle and crumbly, but if the pieces are baked to stop mycelium growth and then allowed to finish drying slowly in the open air, they seem to increase in strength and stability. I think of this phase as a ‘curing’ process.
‘Skinning’ is what I call the process of growing a coat of white, velvety mycelium on the surface of the formed pieces. This process is carried out after the pieces have been popped out of the mold and then flipped upside down on the tray. I have gotten inconsistent skinning growth, indeed, I’m not even sure what the ideal growth looks like for further working at the jewelry bench. Too much skin can flake off after drying and curing and not enough skin makes the piece look like it’s made of particleboard. To aid in releasing the material from the molds, I have experimented with cooking spray (vegetable oil) which works great but also seems to inhibit skinning. Further experimentation and aesthetic feedback from a focus group will help resolve this challenge.
Once cured, I have been experimenting with different sealing materials to add further strength and durability to the forms. I began by dipping pieces in water-based polyurethane, which is effective but not very ‘green’ (poly is actually plastic). I just purchased a gallon of boiled linseed oil and will experiment with a batch of that in the coming weeks as a more green alternative. If you have a suggestion for a coating, I'd love to hear it.
On the design side of the creative process, I am beginning to experiment with the mycelium forms by cutting, drilling, gluing, painting, wrapping, and many other processes. This is essentially a brand new jewelry medium and the options are wide open for creative experimentation, something I find both exciting and a bit terrifying. What if I have done all this work and I can't make something interesting from it?!
For the first time in our 35+ year history together, my wife is not very excited about the work I am creating with this new material (she actually used the word hideous the other day)! She thinks the designs look discolored, blobby, not crisp, ugly, and gross! I’m loving the challenge of winning her over and am not deterred by her reaction. I personally love the contrast of the organic mycelium forms with sharper cleaner edges of other materials both natural and human-made. For now, I am content to be focused 100% on creative experimentation with this new medium with no expectation of financial return, relying on my day job (public school K-12 art teacher) to pay the bills. It’s a nasty inverse relationship, you either have money and no time for your art or you have time for your art but no money!
For now creative experimentation continues with little interest from the jewelry world, I think I'm fine with that.