Ellen Stone began her journey with the Museum as an event and outreach volunteer, but she joined our staff this past September as one of our intrepid Education Assistants.
In her role here, she can often be found leading school field trips at the Museum or out in nature. Ellen recalls a touching moment with one child while teaching a Nature Rangers program at Pogonip: “A little girl was following me around asking questions and so I lead her to a small spring in the ground where water was bubbling up. She sat there in awe with her eyes on the spring after we talked about what it was, and later came up to me to thank me for showing her. Sweet moments like these make me feel grateful to be able to weave my passions and values into the work I do every day in order to help children grow their relationships with nature.”
Ellen spent her own childhood peering into creeks, hiking in the mountains, and visiting the Natural History Museum in her hometown of Santa Barbara. She made her way up to the land of the redwoods to attend UC Santa Cruz, obtaining her B.S. in Environmental Studies. Since graduating, she has focussed her time on being outdoors, helping children make connections with the natural world.
Both at the Museum and at home, she also loves finding ways to combine her love of art and nature through a variety of mediums and is always excited to try something new – from natural dyes, to weaving baskets, to nature journaling. Her appreciation for the natural world grows with every plant she respectfully uses for a project or for every landscape that she documents through sketching.
If fungi had a poster child, who would it be? A classic red capped amanita? Or maybe an exuberantly golden chanterelle? Or maybe, just maybe, it would be one of the eclectic cast of characters that has periodically adorned Fungus Fair flyers from as far back as the 1970s!
Centered in a square frame, a grasshopper (or another member of the family orthoptera) leans an “elbow” onto a table piled high with vibrant fungal forms, reaching lazily towards this treasure trove. Nearby, what appears to be an excited alligator lizard is poised to pop a mushroom in it is mouth. It’s a homey scene, but unlikely beyond the goofy trope of animals at a table. While grasshoppers, who prefer leafy green meals, will turn to fungi for food, alligator lizards might likelier eat their fellow fair guest!
Zooming out, these whimsical Fungus Fair attendees are in a series of rooms full of fungi. The specimens appear to be planted into the floor, recalling the elaborate dioramas of the fair, where a visitor might wonder how they walked through the doors of the Louden Nelson Center and found themselves in a forest. And while these elaborate displays have been an iconic part of the event, it hasn’t always been held at Louden.
In fact, the first festival was held in 1974 here at your favorite local natural history museum, then called the Santa Cruz City Museum. From the beginning, it featured more than 150 varieties of wild native mushrooms, displayed in those trademark habitat dioramas with detailed identifications. Originally a joint project of the Museum, mycologist David Arora, and enthusiastic community members who would become the Fungus Federation, the event quickly grew to thousands of guests. There were even years where the very rains that supported fungal growth would cancel the tables and activities that had to spill out into Tyrrell Park.
Looking for more space, the fair moved around and eventually settled at Louden in the 1990s. In describing the choice of venue, longtime member and mushroom identification instructor Phil Carpenter pointed out the value of not only having more space, but of having a facility where the Federation could begin setting up displays many days ahead of time. This extra time is a critical requirement for specimen preservation and display, as Federation members are called upon to gather various specimens in the days leading up to each year’s fair. Dive into years of the Fungus Federation’s digitized newsletters for more on the nuts and bolts of everything from fair set up to making that ideal chanterelle pasta.
This shared history is one of the reasons why our own archive has so many Fungus Fair treasures. Another reason is the treasure who was a longtime volunteer, Pat Smith. Building on last month’s close up, the people behind these posters weren’t always science illustrators – sometimes they were silkscreening powerhouses!
Pat and her husband Kirk Smith arrived in Santa Cruz in the mid 1970s after serving in the Peace Corps. Some of their adult children had established roots in the community, and they soon followed suit. One of the organizations they both cared a great deal about was our little museum. Pat gravitated towards active and tangible ways to support her causes – she would rather be printing t-shirts and flyers for the gift shop than serving on a board. And make them she did – for countless events ranging from public festivals to staff birthday parties.
Her daughter and current board member Laura Smith remembers Pat’s constant outpouring of creative activity over the course of a lifetime – from making linocuts with one of her small daughters, to teaching underserved students sewing and photography after her own kids had grown up, to turning part of the couple’s Santa Cruz home into a silkscreen studio. If you stopped in at Pat and Kirk’s for a visit, and mentioned you liked frogs, Pat would jump at the chance to invite you into the darkroom to make yourself a frog t-shirt.
You can see one of the screens used to print our fun fungi dinner guests, as well as different iterations of posters, mailers, and even aprons featuring this design on display this month at the Museum. And you can find more fungi images and interactives as part of our final month of the visiting exhibition Mushrooms: Kings to the Kingdom Fungi.
A naturalist is someone who studies the patterns of nature. They seek to deepen our understanding of the natural world by observing the interconnected relationships of living things and their environments. Or in other words: Alex Krohn.
“Santa Cruz has the highest density of naturalists per capita of anywhere I’ve been, and I know the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History plays a large role in fostering, supporting, and helping grow that community. That’s something I absolutely support, and something I’m proud to be a part of,” said Alex — a Member, program provider, and collaborative partner of the Museum.
Alex has helped to facilitate a number of loans from the Kenneth S. Norris Center for Natural History to our Museum for events such as our annual Halloween bash, Museum of the Macabre, and exhibits such as the newMushrooms: Keys to the Kingdom Fungi, January 11-March 1, 2020. He has also led programs for the Museum as a naturalist and frequents our events as a Museum Member. As if that weren’t enough, he is a big fan of our Gift Shop. “So far I’ve done almost all my holiday shopping in the Museum’s gift shop,” he said, which we just love.
Though it is a treat to witness Alex engage on any natural history subject, he is primarily a reptile and amphibian specialist with a PhD in Evolutionary and Conservation Genomics from UC Berkeley. He loves helping connect people with all aspects of nature, both from his post as Assistant Director of the Kenneth S. Norris Center for Natural History at UC Santa Cruz and across the natural lands of Santa Cruz County.
“Santa Cruz County is a truly amazing place,” he said. “We have fantastical species found nowhere else on Earth — from half-dollar sized beetles that only fly at night during the first rains…to multiple manzanita species only present on patches of geologic beach sand that was pushed to the top of a mountain. We have towering redwoods, and sandhill chaparral and coastal grasslands, each more inspiring depending on the day of the week.”
Alex says that his favorite part of his work at the Norris Center is stewarding the collection: “I’m in charge of helping care for, organizing and digitizing more than 130,000 specimens of mostly terrestrial (but some aquatic!) species — from bryophytes to birds.”
Providing access to these collections is paramount for Alex, as is fostering an interest in nature and museums for the students he serves at UC Santa Cruz, many of whom have interned in the Education and Collections Departments of our Museum.
We are grateful to have his support as a local naturalist, important community partner, and engaged Member and friend of the Museum. Explore the wonderful work the Norris Center does by paying them a visit or learning more on their website, and visit some of the mushroom specimens we have on loan from them through our Mushrooms exhibit, opening January 11.
With the Central Coast awash in new growth, this time of year finds many a fungus hunter stalking the landscape to feast their eyes, expand their minds, or feed their stomachs. For the January and February Collections Close-Ups, we went hunting in the museum’s archives to highlight stories of fungus and the people who appreciate them.
A beloved institution for many of us, the Fungus Federation is a community organization that promotes love for and study of fungi. They welcome folks of all skill levels, from amateurs just learning what to look for, to experts helping science look more closely at the mycoflora of Santa Cruz County. In addition to educational events, workshops, and classes, they support scientific research through scholarships and grants. A federation member might be just as likely to help you learn what a particular mushroom is, as they are to advise you on how to cook it. Of course, one doesn’t always follow the other – in the words of mushroom enthusiasts, who seem equally fond of fun sayings as they are of caution – there are old mushroom hunters and there are bold mushroom hunters but there are no old bold mushroom hunters.
And they don’t just put the fun in fungi, they put on the famous annual Fungus Fair! This year’s festivities will take place from January 10 to 12 at Louden Nelson Community Center. The festivities of yesteryear can also be found in our pop up display of previous fair posters.
The Federation’s knack for bringing people together over fungi extends to the robust local community of science and nature illustrators. This selection of posters highlights diverse strategies and styles used to depict the natural world, from watercolor to block printing to photo collage. Oftentimes the artists have been graduates of UCSC’s former science illustration certificate program. We were lucky enough to catch up with two of them.
Cynthia Armstrong’s illustration for the 2003 Fungus Fair poster is a striking combination of stark contrasts and intricate detail, highlighting a variety of fungus species ensconced within a delicate network of vines. She made it not long after completing her science illustration degree, committed to pursuing a career that dovetailed her first love, science, with her lifelong creative impulses. As an artist, Cynthia loves to show her processes – the unfolding of a subject in process recalls how the scientific exploration for answers often unfolds into new questions. As a science illustrator, she has enjoyed taking part in this process across the world, whether illustrating mammoth bones in Maine’s state museum or documenting plants for a field botanist in Panama.
At home on the Central Coast, Cynthia loves that the redwoods are always full of opportunities to find fungus. The incredible diversity of fungus keeps her intrigued – their otherworldly and alien forms and structures are a joy to illustrate. She still regularly attends the Fungus Fair with her family, having first attended decades ago when fair founder David Arora was signing copies of his newly published classic, Mushrooms Demystified. You can catch Cynthia’s current work, including local classes, on her website.
Gay Kraeger’s work for the 2004 fair poster provides another perspective: four species of dreamily watercolored fungi chart a circle in time – guiding the viewer on what season one might be most likely to find them. Gay actually created this image years before she formally got into illustration. Her neighbors at the time, Fungus Federation members who were in the habit of hosting parties with delicious food, asked her to help illustrate a fungi cookbook they were putting together. Gay was happy to help – she’d always been in engaged with art, and natural history is her favorite subject.
Today her career continues to bring together these interests: on the one hand she teaches illustrated watercoloring journaling. Her own journaling entries are stunning. She loves to see people become more excited and aware of the world as they build the confidence to draw it. On the other hand, she and her business partner Holly Reed run an interpretive design firm called Wildways Illustrated. You can see their work all over the state, but locally they’ve contributed to signage and exhibits at places like Natural Bridges, Ano Nuevo, and the Boardwalk. She’s excited to be working on a welcome panel for Henry Cowell, where park staff made sure to request a turkey tail fungus (Trametes versicolor) as a primary feature.
For the next two months, these posters and others from the history of the Fungus Fair will be displayed alongside a riveting traveling exhibit. We are excited to be hosting Mushrooms: Keys to the Kingdom Fungi, an exhibition developed by Jennifer Jewell and John Whittlesey.