BREATHTAKERS: Sarah Graham Makes Contact with the Forest Floor

By Melanie Dahling

The artist behind the OAFF award laurels on her favourite subject.

Sarah Gee Illustration

An illustration from Sarah Graham’s book, The Mushroom Kingdom Through the Fairy Ring.

Outdoor spaces are so often admired for their expansive appeal. The beauty of a landscape, the unfathomable heights of a mountain, the magic of a far-reaching tree canopy. It can be a challenge to be isolated from all of that. But there’s plenty of wonder to be found in the tiny things, the close-ups and the quiet activities you can embrace indoors. Sarah Graham maintains a relationship with nature through inky illustrations of her favourite subject- mushrooms.

“The initial draw to them was definitely just their aesthetic, they’re such cool alien looking things that pop up from the forest floor,” says Graham.

Sarah Graham mixed media mushroom art

Some cozy mixed media mushroom houses by Sarah Graham.

Like roots underground, mushrooms introduced themselves to Graham in small, different ways until she became a fully fledged mycophile: a person who loves researching, foraging for, studying and cooking mushrooms.

When Graham was in University she stumbled upon a TedTalk, 6 Ways Mushrooms Can Save the World, presented by mycologist Paul Stamets.

The talk presents fascinating information on mycoremediation, where fungi-based science is utilized to clean up the environment.

“At the time when I saw that I was living in the city so that sparked the interest,” says Graham. After moving from Toronto to Muskoka, she started going on hikes with her partner Alex and seeing interesting mushrooms everywhere.

“Before I started hiking and finding them in the wild, what I really thought of as a mushroom was the grocery store mushrooms,” she says. “And then you walk into the woods and there’s these purple things and red things and orange things sprouting up in all these cool unique shapes.”

Though her partner is an expert in plants and trees, he wasn’t able to identify all the species of colourful mushrooms they came across, which prompted Graham to deepen her own understanding of the little guys.

During that time Graham was working as a graphic designer, but hadn’t done much illustration or art for her own pleasure in years. With her growing fascination for fungi, mushrooms became natural models for personal projects.

“It kind of all came together. I was starting to draw, starting to learn about mushrooms and it just seemed like a good outlet,” says Graham. “To start drawing the things that I was finding helped me learn the different shapes and structures.”

@ohemsarahgee

Feeling Isolated? Get Cozy with Sarah Graham’s mushrooms.

Now based in Ottawa, Graham has seen an enthusiastic response from her graphic design clients when they see the illustrations she’s been working on. After meeting Mike McKay, she was commissioned to design the laurels for the Ottawa Adventure Film Festival awards.

“It’s all been a slow growth but it seemed to start with mushrooms,” she says.

Graham has taken up an annual project to develop her skills through Inktober- a daily drawing challenge for artists. You can find the results of her last 2 Inktobers on Art by Sarah Gee on Etsy, or through her Instagram at @ohemsarahgee.

Sarah Graham Illustration

Sarah’s collaboration with fellow mushroom enthusiasts @foursigmatic

As the less adrenaline seeking nature lover in her relationship, Graham has found her interest in mushrooms can be a nice way to bridge the gap. She accompanies her partner on paddling and rock climbing outings but does her own thing.

“It’s great because he can still do all that stuff and I’m just looking around, poking for mushrooms and plants and things like that,” she says. “There’s something for everyone that’s for sure.”

Stuck inside? You don’t have to be a brilliant artist to take a cue from Graham- this is a perfect time to deepen your understanding of all the little things you’ve always found interesting but never zoomed in on.

Fellow mycophiles or aspiring mushroom-heads in the Ottawa area can follow their curiosity to Sarah’s latest project: The Ottawa Valley Mushroom Club on Facebook.