There’s a common rule in the contemporary art world — go big, or go very, very small. Alison Neville chose the latter. From miniature dioramas that fit into sardine cans to tiny polymer mushrooms, Neville’s work is small in scale but rich in depth. Her art is a combination of found object, sculpture, and painting not tied to any particular medium. The main themes in her work deal with political and environmental responsibility, war- and industry-torn landscapes, and, above all, the complex relationships of fungi and animals.
Neville spent most of her childhood in Salt Lake City’s Ninth and Ninth neighborhood and South Carolina, where her father was transferred for work. As a child she would draw and paint, but she didn’t have the same level of direction she had later about what was meaningful to her. “I feel like I missed a lot of opportunities when I was in South Carolina,” Neville admits. “I never even saw a manatee! I also didn’t have my interest in fungi then, which I’m sad about because there are so many interesting mushrooms that grow in that area.”
She returned to Utah and later completed her BFA at Weber State University, an experience she loved. It wasn’t until her university years that she explored more with other mediums, branching out from painting and drawing into found object and sculpture.“I feel like the faculty was very open to me exploring other media than just painting. I felt a lot of support in figuring out my interests and voice,” she says. Neville now works as the educational director at the Bountiful Davis Art Center, leading tours and workshops as well as continuing to produce her own artwork.
At Weber, Neville was affectionately known as the “Mushroom Lady”. She has built a unique sort of symbolism around fungi and the varied parts they play in our lives: psychedelics, video-game characters, poisons, parasites, food, and symbols of rebirth. At Weber she was known for drawing images of fungi, especially the Amanita Muscaria (also known as the Fly Amanita), the trademark red-capped mushroom from the Mario games. “The Amanita Muscaria was the first mushroom I ever drew,” Neville explains. “I was on vacation up in the Uintas and found this beautiful hand-drawn mushroom identification guide. We were staying in a cabin without any TV or internet, so the only thing to do was read.” Fascinated by the graceful lines and vibrant colors, she duplicated the guidebook’s drawing of the fly amanita. Then, flipping through the guidebook, she became interested in the various types of fungi and the different reactions she had to them. Each person, she says, also has a personal connection and meaning associated with these organisms.
From her first fungi drawing grew an entire residency at the Utah Museum of Contemporary Art and a culminating show in its Artists-In-Residence space called M.A.D., for “mutually assured destruction.” Neville formed fungi colonies on screen-printed maps of nuclear-testing sites in Russia and North Korea, with the highest concentrations of mushrooms where the radiation damage was the strongest. The prints were mounted on Cold War-era school desks, a call back to the fear and mistrust during the Red Scare. The maps of Russia, says Neville, brought up feelings of mistrust in the community, and the North Korea test sites functioned as a “modern application and why I had been thinking about it.”
Fungi played a couple different roles in the exhibition. First and foremost was the image of the mushroom cloud and of how devastating the beginning of the Cold War was on the global psyche. Second, mushrooms are incredibly resilient and powerful feeders — they can process heavy metals, clean up oil spills, help counteract global warming, and even soak up radiation. Though it’s never been tested at large scale, theoretically a nuclear testing site could be cleansed by planting certain types of fungi and then scraping them up once they have absorbed the heavy metals. The mushroom, comments Neville, is an underutilized natural wonder. “Some are hideous, terrifying, others more beautiful than even the prettiest rose. In prehistoric times, there were fungi taller than trees. In a very primal way, fungi have a deep connection to the Earth,” she says.
Neville’s connection with fungi has grown as she experiments with ways to include it further in her artwork. She joined the Mushroom Society of Utah, a group that learns about and goes foraging for mushrooms together. “I actually don’t like how mushrooms taste at all. I would never put them on a pizza,” Neville says, “The culinary people [in the society] were very disappointed in me, but when we went foraging, we didn’t find anything edible.” She did, however, find artist’s conk mushrooms, which are a shelflike polypore mushroom with an incredibly white underbelly and a woody top. Neville found she could scratch designs into the underbelly of the mushroom and the lines would stay, brown against white, even after the mushroom dried. On another outdoor trip she found a shaggy mane mushroom that decomposes into an ink Neville would draw with. She says, “It’s a secret ink I can play with, like painting with milk and burning it.”
Part of Neville’s interest in fungi is the similarity between fungi and animals. They shared a common ancestor just 1.1 billion years ago, making mushrooms and humans much more closely related than humans and plants. Both groups are heterotrophic, meaning they consume other organisms for energy, unlike plants that produce their own. “They eat trees the same way we would eat a cheeseburger,” Neville quips. We have similar cell structures which is why it can be so difficult for our bodies to recognize fungi as an invasive threat and eradicate harmful growth. For this reason, medications meant to counteract fungal infections often can harm healthy human cells.
Parasitic, intrusive fungi often have skimmed the edges of human consciousness, inspiring popular video games like “The Last of Us,” which explores the Cordyceps mushroom and its potential to turn the human race into zombies. In the actual world, cordyceps fungi infect insects, keeping their host alive but controlling their body to do what is more beneficial for the fungi. “It’s a strange relationship that [seemed] absolutely perfect on something kitschy and dead-eyed,” she says, referring to her Kitsch Cordyceps sculptures. Neville searches out cutified animal sculptures, often at consignment stores, and transforms them using felt or clay. Along with being an interesting take on American kitsch, her pieces also speak to the tendency we have to take nature and make it cute, glassy, and still, so we can enjoy our own form of it.
The relationship between humans and animals is also explored in her current project, a solo show at Salt Lake Community College running March 22nd – May 9th. Reciprocity will be a small-scale diorama exhibition focused on a few key animal/human relationships in the near past. “I’ve always wanted to make small worlds,” Neville says. The exhibit is largely inspired by the story of Sudan the white rhino. “Sudan was a big inspiration for me. He is the last of his species, and as such always had a guard around him,” Neville says. “You can tell his human guards love him and care for him, but at the same time, [humans] put him in this situation of being the last of his species by poaching.”
Other dioramas include a two-headed shark -— a sign the shark population is stressed by overfishing — and the famous man-eating lions, the Tsavo Man-Eaters, that inspired the 1996 film “The Ghost and the Darkness” A third shows the scene of a man taunting a buffalo in Yellowstone Park, a clip of animal harassment that went viral last year. Each of the dioramas is self-contained in brightly colored flat cans. For the past few months, Neville said, she has been searching for vibrant, interesting, unusual cans for her show. “I’ve made my family eat so much more sardines and pâté then they would usually,” she says. “I can’t just throw away the food — that would be such a waste.”
One of the more poignant dioramas is of Tyke, a circus elephant in Honolulu who killed her trainer and escaped. The Honolulu police were unable to calm her and ended up shooting her repeatedly until she collapsed from her wounds. “When I heard that story, all I could think was that she was only free for a few hours before she died,” Neville says. These stories have stuck with Neville for years and she believes others will recognize them too. Rather than writing a traditional artist’s statement, she is designing an accompanying zine with a paragraph summarizing each news story depicted in the dioramas. “For this show, I hope people see the dioramas and remember reading about those stories in the news. I wanted my dioramas to be of real events so the audience focuses on the subject matter rather than how small they are.”
Most of Neville’s work is politically heavy and, she says, often dark and pessimistic. To alleviate some of the gloom, Neville also creates coloring books, two of which are completed: the Fungi Fancy Coloring Book and Sacred Sloths. “My grandma always used to complain that my drawings were never ‘complete’ because I didn’t color them. They were line drawings,” she says with a laugh. “So I decided to make coloring books so that other people could color my images for me.” Sacred Sloths especially felt light-hearted to Neville, a whimsical take on different religious iconography. Though she doesn’t yet know the subject matter of her next coloring book, she plans to continue them as a break from her more emotionally intense pieces.
Another of her current projects is “Blood Ties,” a piece for the Transcontinental Railroad show at the Rio Gallery. “I originally wanted to do a piece about the ecological impact of building the railroad: how many buffalo were killed, how many towns were built up and abandoned … but there just weren’t enough credible sources from that time to measure it,” she says. Instead, Neville noticed the veinlike structure of the railroad and became interested in translating that shape to a new surface. She chose embroidery on a piece of synthetic silk chiffon in recognition of the many Chinese immigrants who came to build the railroad. “[Building the railroad] was such a male project — men dominated engineering and building during that time. I wanted to use embroidery because it was something my mom taught me, an art form associated with women,” she explains. Embroidery is also a nod to Utah’s pioneer heritage and the many embroidered pieces that can be seen in historic buildings and grandmother’s houses alike.
Neville creates small worlds that deal with history, politics, environment, and control. The responsibility to care for nature is a main driving force in Neville’s art. Her pieces often reflect on how we as humans can, through policy and daily action, take care of the Earth. She explains: “There’s this idea that the Earth is so resilient, that it will go on without us, and that isn’t true. We are animals, we share this planet with so many other organisms, we really should be aware of what we are doing and try to live in harmony with them as much as we can.”
Reciprocity mixed-media work by Alison Neville, Eccles Gallery Center for Arts & Media, Salt Lake Community College, South City Campus, Salt Lake City, March 22nd – May 9. Diorama workshop with Alison Neville on April 4, 6:30 p.m., Conference Room 110, Center for Arts & Media.
Neville’s work also can be seen in Transcontinental Railroad 150th Anniversary: People. Place. Impact. Rio Gallery, Salt Lake City, March 22 – June 14, opening reception April 19, 6-9 pm.
Hannah Sandorf Davis graduated with a degree in art history with a minor in visual arts from Brigham Young University.