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Features / June 19, 2008

Katie Bethune-Leamen: Mushroom Crowd

Katie Bethune-Leamen Mushroom Studio 2008 / photo Ben Tong

Popular during the Arts & Crafts movement and the 1970s, mushroom motifs seem to be in vogue again. Observing this, Katie Bethune-Leamen has been creating mushrooms, most recently for the Toronto Sculpture Garden. Nestled under a canopy of trees between a restaurant patio and condominiums is a 20-foot-tall toadstool, a giant Amanita pantherina made of steel, foam, and wood. Inside its hollow stem is the artist’s studio.

The fairy tale-like Mushroom Studio is a delight. After all, Bethune-Leamen references California’s early 20th century “programmatic” or “Crazy California” buildings—concessions and roadside diners shaped like the whimsical dwellings of cartoon characters, the likes of which eventually spread across North America. Alice in Wonderland and Beatrix Potter also come to mind. Inevitably, the sculpture evokes nostalgia.

Situated in downtown Toronto, Bethune-Leamen says Mushroom Studio asserts the artist’s studio as one more fixture in the city. Of course it looks absurd and vulnerable. Not only do we imagine mushrooms as “lovely but nasty” organisms that grow in dark places, as Bethune-Leamen says, but they’re the visible fruiting of the larger mycelium underground. In some respects perhaps, so goes the life of the artist—existing under the radar except at specific times and places. (115 King St E, Toronto ON)For Bethune-Leamen, mushrooms also have metaphorical significance. Mushrooms’ cyclical production suggests death and rebirth, an idea that she explores further in another recent artwork. At Convenience Gallery (58 Landsdowne Ave) The Ghost of Tupac Amaru Shakur Attended by an Eames Polypropylene Eiffel Base Shell Chair and a Phalanx of Amanita Pantherina Mushrooms layers Plexiglas images of the three named elements into a poignant summary of the hip hop star’s death and resurrection through his posthumously released work. Mushrooms first cropped up for the artist in 2007’s “Play/Grounds,” with Bethune-Leamen distributing model mushrooms throughout Parkdale.