Finding Mold In Unbelievable Places
New Uses For Unwanted Spores
Every year tens of thousands of people are finding mold and removing mold from their homes or work facilities. The sight of dark spots and the smell of deep spores has occupants rushing out the door, calling local mold removal specialists. But artist Stacy Levy isn’t running from mold. In fact she welcomes it in her workshop where she is thoughtfully growing and crafting mold into visionary artwork.1
Celebrated in her hometown of Spring Mills, Pennsylvania and throughout the entire world, Stacy’s unique style in combining nature and art reveals a beauty of mold most have never thought even existed. It certainly has caught our attention and Stacy has been very kind to take the time to answer some of our burning questions about her work with mold.
What inspired you to begin using mold in your art?
I was researching for a project to be created in response to the Philadelphia Flower Show. I had been looking at electron microscope images of mold spores for another project about what is floating around in the air and I noticed that the mold spores looked like tiny flowers: Penicillium is quite a bit like bunches of goldenrod and Aspergillus is sort of like flattened Queen Annes Lace. So I realized that the mold spores were a whole world of Micro- florals that we could not see.
The idea that the world is beautiful all the way down to the tiniest parts was very important to me. I wanted to create an appreciation for the less visible flowers in our world, hence the title Mold Gardens for the project. And understanding mold as flowers and foliage helped me not be disgusted when I saw mold growing on my grapefruit or bread.
How long does it usually take to grow the mold?
Mold Garden’s glass plates are hugely enlarged portraits of the mold engraved into the glass, creating hundreds of little petri-dish concavities. I pour warm agar into the “petri dishes” in the glass plates and then inoculate the agar with mold spores I have collected from food. It takes about a week for mold to grow into the agar in the molds.
They are very beautiful for about three weeks and then begin to die and need to be cleaned out and re-grown. The Mold Gardens are double portraits of mold: hugely enlarged views of mold overlaying a life-size portrait of the actual mold itself.
You work through a diverse range of natural and vegetative mediums and over long periods of time, for example your Straw Garden under the Space Needle at Seattle Center. Any more big projects involving mold on the horizon?
I am working with freshwater mussels right now and looking into their life cycle and to what they eat. So my newest invisible world investigation is observing algae and diatoms and plankton.
Stacy’s Mold Garden uses two genera of fungi – the genus of Aspergillus and the genus of Penicillium. Both genera have hundreds of species of mold, several which are used in commercial and medical applications. The Penicillium genus is probably best known for several of its species used in the production of penicillin.
Penicillin is a group of antibiotics prescribed to medical patients each year to treat bacterial infections of the body like strep throat. It’s discovery in 1928 by Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming led to its quick adoption among the medical community. By the early 1940’s penicillin was being regularly prescribed. Dubbed as the first discovered natural antibiotic, Fleming, Florey, and Chain won the 1945 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for their work.2
Today penicillin is used in abundance as the CDC reports that in 2013 more than 60 million outpatients in the U.S. were prescribed a form of penicillin.3 It makes it more probable than not that a person in the U.S. will be prescribed penicillin during their lifetime. And makes Stacy’s work with it even more important, not only is her micro and macroscopic art beautiful but also highly relevant to our lives. It highlights a dramatic shift in Western medicine that has altered patient care for the last eight decades, saving countless numbers of lives.
Aspergillus named for its characteristic similarities to a sprinkler doesn’t share quite the same fame as penicillin. While also used in the medical industry, it hasn’t been for its ability to reduce and kill harmful infections but rather to cause it. Defined as a conidial fungi, scientists grow Aspergillus to investigate disease. Pathogenic species of A. fumigatus and A. flavus are known to produce aflatoxin which acts as a toxin and a carcinogen to humans. By studying these microscopic mechanisms of Aspergillus, which thrive in oxygen rich environments, scientists can gain a better understanding of how microbial growth occurs and how we can better fight such infections in the human body.4
Stacy’s work is a tribute to finding beauty in unlikely places and a testament to the significant and diverse roles that molds play in our lives – two roles particularly that represent a stark contrast between life and death.
Many thanks to Stacy for loaning the images and her time.
Stacy Levy displays a broad collection of her art on her website www.stacylevy.com.
- Stacy Levy Website. (2016). http://stacylevy.com/installations/mold_garden.php
- Public Broadcasting Service (PBS); Markel, Howard M.D.(2013). The Real Story Behind Penicillin. http://www.pbs.org/newshour/rundown/the-real-story-behind-the-worlds-first-antibiotic/
- The Centers for Disease and Control. (2013). Outpatient Antibiotic Prescriptions. http://www.cdc.gov/getsmart/community/pdfs/annual-reportsummary_2013.pdf