1. Welcome Maria to The Influx Gallery family. Tell us a little bit about yourself and where you are from?
Hello, Mr. Savage. Thank you for the opportunity to share a bit about myself and my work. I am from Pasadena, California, although I have spent more of my adult life traveling and living in other countries like Germany and Thailand. I spent most of my childhood with my grandparents on my mother’s side, Irish/German, and my father’s side, Mexican. My father’s mother was an herbalist and healer and my mother’s parents were both artists, which makes sense since I am an artist who works with living, plant materials. My grandfather, who had a primary hold on my life as an artist, and my grandmother, Maria, a painter and absolute source of grace in my life, introduced me to art. I learned sculpture with my grandfather when I was 5 years old. I come from a family imbedded in the Los Angeles art scene. My uncle worked for many years with the L.A. Arts Commission to LAX Airport Arts Curator. Spending a lot of time in Olvera Street, a historic street in downtown Los Angeles and a part of El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historic Monument, and the main square of the city since the early 1820 influenced me. The colors of dresses on the dancers, the music, arts and crafts, the smell of leather and Mexican foods and cobblestone roads had an impact on me as a child. Although I look like my mother’s side of the family, a white person, I am very much a Latina. My heritage and culture has saturated California state in the many traditions and colors that it now celebrates. Sadly, my father past away last year from Covid-19 complications. Luckily, many family members who got sick survived.
2. Were your family supportive of you deciding to become an artist?
My family was supportive of going to art academy out of high school. It was my mother, who is a retired stock administrator, who lead me to achieve a masters in business, which provided a foundational understanding of the international commerce and marketplace. It was a great strategy and has aided in a variety of sectors, from understanding my rights as an artist in the United States to developing strategy, media, marketing, and press materials. In addition, I have held many seats on boards and councils in an advisory or mentor role. Sharing what I understand about art and business with other organizations and other artists is a privilege. When we are of service to each other, we continue learn.
3. Was there anything specific that you can remember that made you want to become an artist?
I believe it was my grandfather, Patrick McGowan. We often discussed sculptors from CONSTANTIN BRÂNCUȘI, GIACOMETTI to RODIN, whom my grandfather was enamored with. His studio was always striking. As a child, I remember a large room with built-in bookshelves full of art history books, dictionaries in a variety of languages, and sculptures lining any available space along the brick walls and floors. He often asked me questions about what I could see and always suggested I watch and observe at all times. In a way, he was training my inner eye.
4. Did your schooling or work affect your creative development in any way?
Absolutely, yes. I am still a fan of art school and believe we need to learn the rules in order to know how to navigate them and break them when we are ready. I took to my painting style fairly quickly, and, after 4 years, graduated from Cornish College of the Arts in Seattle with a B.F.A in Design. Although my emphasis was in painting in oils and collage, design is always applied to any project I undertake
5. You are currently the only artist in the United States who grows their own paintings and sculptures using living or organic materials. How did this fantastic and original process evolve?
Shockingly! I was in a car accident 4 years ago. At that point for 23 years, I had only worked in oils, collage, and resin. It was a near death experience that changed my entire life and my approach to my life as my work. During recovery, I watched Fantastic Fungi a film by the artist Louie Schwartzberg. It was very inspiring, so I started looking hard at my own health and well-being. I thought at that time t I would never paint again. The impaired driver hit the right side of my car which caused a nerve root impingement in my spine causing paralysis immediately. I’ll never forget seeing my arms fall from the steering wheel and all of a sudden just being only an observer. I had no control or use of my arms and hands at that first impact. My airbag did not deploy and so there were five more impacts before I died and came to life in a hospital, where I did not recognize my husband or even know his name.
The first year, I could not talk very well or form sentences. I had a total of seven surgeries on my arms and hands, the last one was 9 months ago. My husband took a year off to help me during my first year of recovery. His father and grandfather were doctors, so I believe he is a healer, too. It’s in his family line. I tried very hard to create an apparatus to help me paint in my style. I received a grant from the California Arts Council and the Art and Disability Center of UCLA, as well as an innovation grant. The last painting I created in this style was of Amanda Gorman and that painting tore the muscle from my right arm. It was clear that I needed to find a material that was light enough to work with and would not weigh more than 3 pounds when completed.
Subsequently, I received the Fantastic Fungi Global Summit Scholarship. In that material I learned about mycelium and healing through mushrooms, both as an alternative to healing cognitive and emotional issues and as support for overall immune system and inflammation, for which I suggest Turkey Tail or Reishi mushroom. I began using the materials I was putting into my body to create with. I found a company that makes mycelium that is unseeded and will never fruit mushrooms. They donated several pounds to me to build The Well Within project, which was a well made out of mycelium. It was inspired by my paintings that burned in the Caldor Fire in 2021.
It’s clear to me now that the universe seems to have been ease dropping on my purpose and decided that I should be an eco-artist and work only with mycelium, living materials, and organic fruits and vegetables to make my own paint. These days my greatest challenge is patience. Growing anything takes time and mycelium, since it shares 50% of our DNA with us (Merlin Sheldrake, UK mycologist and my myco Crush). Today I co-create with my material and I always feel honored to be a myco-whisperer. Mycelium and growing mushrooms is a very specific and selective process. Working with the material doesn’t always work well with other artists. I do my best to treat my mycelium batches like children. As any child grows it needs a hand, love and encouragement. Creating the right growth
environment, providing classical music, and speaking to the material helps in the growth process. It’s the least I can do. They are turning into beautiful sculptures that clean the air while they dry as does any plant, and my paintings that have mycelium grown into them clean the air in your home. If you don’t want a bunch of plants around, you can buy a few paintings and clean the air in your home with art. It’s an intelligent and amazing material.
6. How long does a Maria Schechter painting take to complete?
From its inception to a finished piece ready to be delivered to a gallery? I have my process honed so I can have the piece finished in 3 days. Depending where the gallery is, you can have one in hand in 4 days. From start to finish, that is 4 days.
7. Where do you get your inspiration and influences from?
Trees. The night of the car accident the last thing I remember was looking up into a starry sky outlined by redwood trees on Highway 17 in California’s Santa Cruz Mountains. At that moment, I was called to them. I had no idea that mycelium was underground and very much a part of the wood wide web. Of course, I have many inspirations and historical influences such as the symbolists, art deco, Klimt, and Mucha. Today I would say mycologists such as American Mycologist Paul Stamets and UK. Mycologist Merlin Sheldrake.
8. The organic materials used to create your beautiful and unique works include beets, baking soda, clay, salt, soil, mycelium et al. This sounds like a thoroughly enjoyable and cathartic process. Can you share with us some of emotions during the creative process?
I employ Ikebana techniques (生花) means living flowers. Ikebana is the Japanese art of flower arranging and has been described as being more subtle, more sensitive, and more sophisticated than the methods of arranging flowers employed in other cultures. In my case, I work with oyster mushrooms that I grow, reindeer moss, tree bark, dirt, twigs, and mycelium, so there are many living and organic materials being carefully placed together in a curated and designed way. It is very meditative and helps slow me down and follow my breath. It’s a beautiful and peaceful practice that results in a colorful collection of nature.
9. Do you have a favourite painting technique?
I do not. I used to only love my blending style with oil paint and feel that my experience of working with oils for 23 years has helped me to transition to a medium I have never used. In a way, I use a watercolor process; however, the painting style is very abstract, new to me, and a unique approach to my work. The paint is more like washes of color boiled down from organic fruits, vegetables, coffee, tea, plants, and flowers. I use tools to paint instead of traditional paintbrushes. I use sculpting tools, droppers, and lightweight brushes usually used for makeup application. I used to test brushes for Daniel Smith, an artist supply store based out of Seattle, Washington. I learned so much about the various hairs and animals they come from. Even at that time the handmade brushes from Japan were my favorite. They were made with squirrel hair and were made of thin layers of wood with a twine wrapping. It looked too delicate for the use of anything other than ink or washes. However, I used to use dry pigment brushes to paint in oils and now I use tools that are typically used in resin work but use them to work with organic materials. They are light weight and allow me to move the colors around on the paper without tearing or damaging the paper and without saturating too much of the color wash into the hairs of a big brush. They are perfectly suitable for what I am aiming to achieve.
10. We are very honoured to represent an artist displaying such creative originality. Does your creative process involve conscious or unconscious imaginings, or a mixture of both?
I curate each piece and weave them together their grown painting palette. It’s the direction of the color and how it is placed on the paper that allows for the initial direction. As for the images, the mushroom series was inspired by the shape or color of the mushroom I was trying to capture. Rodotus, for example, looks like a mushroom from an animation and its colors with big white dots on a red skin inspired the piece.
11. What was your most enjoyable artwork to create/construct?
When I arrived at the Mushroom Aquatic series I was ecstatic because I didn’t know it existed. During my research, I learned of Psathyrella, a real, gilled mushroom that grows underwater. The discovery of a species of underwater mushroom was a turning point and I added the use of water jewels to accentuate the glowing properties found in the real Psathyrella. "Until recently, conventional wisdom held that gilled mushrooms did not exist underwater. In 2005, a Psathyrella, a new species was discovered in the clear, flowing, pristine waters of the Rogue River near Crater Lake, Oregon. This discovery opens up a new branch of aquatic mycology, and raises many questions. How many other mushroom species grow underwater?" (Coffan, Southworth, and Frank, Mycellium Running, p 34, 2008).
12. Thanks a lot for your valuable time and interest. You can include any other details you want to talk about here?
*Thank you Mr. Savage for your time and for crafting interesting and engaging questions. I enjoyed taking the time to look deeper into my progress. It’s funny how time seems to get away from us. As an artist, I am always in investigation mode but not on myself. It’s the process I live for and receive the greatest pleasure from. I often feel like I am gardening inside the layers of paper and fruiting colors and shapes to describe the generous kingdom of flora and fauna we all thrive on. I have started to move away from mushrooms and have been putting more emphasis on why I am an eco artist and how it translates to being a voice for endangered and threatened species. I am also trying to reach other artists and creators to tell them about mycelium and how we can use it to create in a non-toxic way. I remember as a freshman in undergrad, I took a part-time job to help an artist who had permanent nerve damage after being an oil painter for 20 years. She needed my hands and my studio to help her to complete her works. I remember wondering if I would be like her some day and asking others to help me finish my work because of nerve damage from the many years of painting without a respirator. But even mineral spirits can be harmful to other humans in the room