Jessie Dawn Mathieson
April 5, 2012
A thin woman with straight reddish-purple hair leads the way down cement stairs into the
basement of Concordia University’s Visual Arts building. At the bottom is a dizzying
hallway; everywhere you look are large solid doors painted various colors. Someone
could get lost in this maze. Each door leads into the studio of a Master of Fine Arts
Eventually the woman finds the door she is looking for. Immediately inside is a table;
partial jaws of four animals sit on it and a framed dead moth hangs above. There is a
plastic container opposite the door with more bones. Prints hang on white walls and a
high ceiling makes the room seem much bigger than it is.
This is the studio of Alexis Williams, the mushroom artist. Her art is a reflection of the
organic world. Mushrooms are her favourite art supply. She gets inspiration from their
For her, the time in studio can be tedious like any job, but when she is out collecting
mushrooms, she is in pure bliss. “It’s the process that I love,” she said from the other
side of her worktable. There is little that pleases her more than roaming the forests in
search of all different mushroom species. She is indiscriminate when picking them for
her art—edible, poisonous, hallucinogenic—they are all beautiful and they all have a
She comes from a small town outside Ottawa. There she gained a fondness for the
woods. “There are mosquitoes, sticks and holes and stuff, but I like it.” Now she has
found a way to take that love and make it part of her life.
She enjoys driving to random places and exploring every nook and cranny of unchartered
forests. She brags that she has superb navigational skills, saying she always finds her
way out, except for one time. She recounts the story of when she actually got lost.
On hot days she tends to be more disoriented in the forest, and this particular day was
a swelter. She was in Gatineau Park and had been walking for a long time. She had
finished her water, and, slightly delirious from the heat, got turned around. She did not
feel like she had walked that far from her parked car, but when she emerged everything
There was a house nearby, so she walked there and asked for water and directions back
to her car. The woman looked at her funny but gave her water anyway. Alexis chugged
it down. Her throat felt like a dry sponge, soaking up half the water before it even made
it down her esophagus. The stranger took out a map and showed Williams where they
were. It would take hours to get there by the road, but Williams was afraid to return via
the woods with dusk falling. The woman did not offer her a ride, so the mushroom artist
started on her way.
She was beginning to feel exhaustion overwhelming her body. Her legs ached from a
whole day of hiking and the making it to the final destination seemed like an impossible
feat. When she was about to give up, a man in a truck pulled over and asked where she
was headed. When she told him, he offered her a ride. He was her savior, and to top it
all off, he bought her Dairy Queen on the way.
Williams has been studying mushrooms and mycology for five years. She has an
incredible depth of knowledge on the topic. Ask her about mushrooms and she will talk
for hours about the mycelium, the actual plant that lives in decaying trees and in nutrient
rich earth. The mushroom is actually just the fruit of the mycelium.
For the most part, Williams only collects the mushroom fruit, the part of the plant that
comes to mind when people picture mushrooms. She uses the fruit in many different
ways in her art.
The larger print pieces that hang on her walls are of two types. Some are pictures
of mushrooms that have been manipulated into psychedelic images, usually of
the underside—the gills—of the mushroom. They are all formed into colourful,
kaleidoscopic shapes on a black background. The others are enlarged images of
mushroom spore prints.
Mushrooms propagate through their spores. To make a spore print, Williams puts the
mushroom on a piece of glass, gills down. Then she lays a blanket on top and allows the
spores to settle. Afterward she has a beautiful print made from the spores. It looks like
a white circle of powder with lines from the gills. She uses these to make more prints
of white on black with a poetry line written dozens of times, spiraling outward from the
print. Sometimes she uses the negative so the image is black on white.
What is left after she scans the images is a bunch of pieces of glass with spore prints
of various sizes and types. She makes the glass pieces into window decorations.
“When the light comes through them,” she said, “they cast shadows and pick up on the
beautiful colors of the light spectrum.” These colors change as the sun moves, creating a
spectacular effect. Williams enjoys these pieces because they are always in flux.
Each piece of glass is about a square foot. Williams wants to solder a bunch of them
together like stained glass to make a few giant pieces that she hopes to display in a
In the winter months, when mushrooms are not growing, Williams occupies her time in
other ways; but even her winter work is connected to nature. Currently she is working
video projects. She is making five David Attenborough remixes. For one of the videos,
she screens all his films for five-to-seven-syllable sentences. She will then take those and
manipulate them into a series of haikus.
She is also looking for snippets of animals and nature with specific directional
movements. She wants to sync these so the picture flows in one continuous movement.
There are other interesting plans she has for the Attenborough remixes, like making a
song from his tones and using his mentions of seasons to have a continuous loop of the
Williams is all about flow and movement and the rhythm of the natural world. She has a
real connection with the life that surrounds us all, and it shines through in her personality.
She is so at ease and appears to almost drift with the world around her. When speaking
with her, one gets the sense that she is very connected with her surroundings.
She tends to recognized things that others do not. In the interview, she spoke of
liminality, the state of being at a threshold between two different existential planes, or,
in short, neither here nor there. When she sees a corpse, it makes her think of this state,
because the body is not alive but it remains a source of energy and nutrients for the world
around it. She herself experiences this state in the morning when she is awake but her
mind is not quite there.
Liminality comes through in her work as well. Whenever she can, she takes her camera
to the Lionel-Groulx metro to capture this state. What is it that she is capturing exactly?
It is the brief moment when two trains arrive at the platform at the same time and there is
a mad scramble of people running either way. This is a phenomenon unique to Lionel-
Groulx, and, for Williams, everyone on the platform is a liminal being.
Even while she is distracted with all of this, Alexis longs for the spring when mushrooms
begin popping up again. “In the winter I dream about mushrooms every day,” she
said. “My mind gets really used to them and I begin to look for them (there).” The
mushrooms that she sees while sleeping are never simply ones she has seen in her years
as a mushroomer. These are outrageous and crazy ones that her mind creates. One day
she wants to make a field guide to the mushrooms of her dreams.