A Michigan Tech forest science graduate student teases beauty from decay
A Michigan Tech forest science graduate student teases beauty from decay

To learn more about Seri Robinson’s work, including a surprising new use for beer, visit www.techtube.mtu.edu/watch.php?v=550.

Spalt Gestalt

by Jennifer Donovan

The art and science of fungus-riddled wood


Seri Robinson doesn't like mushrooms. And she's drastically allergic to both wood and fungus.

So why is she doing her PhD research on spalting, a process that produces unique patterns and vivid colors in wood by turning certain fungi loose to decay the wood? And why does she go home from her lab to spend hours more in her own woodworking shop, turning spalted wood into works of art?

"Wood is a biological material, and it can be used to create aesthetic beauty," explains the graduate student in the School of Forest Resources and Environmental Science. "It's science, and it's art." Working with it gives her so much joy that she willingly invested in an industrial- strength air filter to help control her allergies.

It's also a field of study that grew out of a lifelong obsession with woodworking. Her grandfather was what Robinson calls "a jack of all fix-its," and while she was growing up in Normal, Illinois, she helped him replace windows, saw boards, hammer, and sand.

Woodshop was a compulsory class in junior high, which delighted young Seri. In senior high, it was an elective. "I was one of the only girls in woodshop in high school," she recalls. "The boys were—let's say—less than nice."

When it was time to go to college, Robinson hadn't had her fill of woodshop, so she hunted for a school that offered woodworking as part of its art program. She landed at Northern Michigan University in Marquette, taking an odd double major, woodworking and criminal justice.

"Artists don't tend to make a living," she explains.

But she found a way to wed the art she loves to the science underlying it. She grows specific species of fungi in various hardwoods, studying which produce what colors, bleached-out patches, and the dark tracings known as zone lines. She also tracks how long each color and pattern takes to develop and how much of which fungicides might stimulate the formation of color and zone lines.

Then she uses what she's learned to create decorative bowls, coasters, decorative eggs, and other pieces that show off the one-of-a-kind colors and markings of spalted wood. She shows them at galleries, art fairs, and online and also offers custom spalting on her website, www.northernspalting.com.

Spalting, from the German spalten, meaning split, is a natural phenomenon that occurs after a tree dies. Woodworkers have long collected pieces of naturally spalted wood. But up to now, no one has actually studied the process.

To earn her master's degree, Robinson turned to Michigan Tech. She wanted to investigate which fungi produce zone lines, the erratic dark lines that form attractive patterns in spalted wood. Zone lines, she explains, are the fungi's version of barbed wire fences. "KEEP OUT!" they say, in no uncertain terms, to other fungi or even mutants of themselves.

"They're not the friendliest of little guys," Robinson remarks.

Initially Professor Peter Laks was skeptical. He'd spent the past twenty years trying to prevent fungi from damaging wood. And here was Robinson wanting to encourage the stuff.

"Seri's projects were definitely a first for me," he says.

But Laks has come around. "The projects are a lot of fun, and I keep learning new things," he admits. "And I have been really impressed with the interest that her work has generated. There is a lot of commercial interest in spalted wood."

So Robinson is working with Laks on her PhD in Forest Science. She is now using fungicides to stimulate fungi to produce predictable colors and patterns more quickly. "In the forest, a log may lie there for twenty years," she says. Even woodworkers, a patient bunch, don't want to wait that long.

Even so, forced spalting takes time. "You start with a mushroom," Robinson says, like Xylaria polymorpha, nicknamed "dead man's fingers" because of its shape. Then you take small cubes of hardwood—sugar maple, birch, or basswood— sterilize them, submerge them in a water-absorbent material like vermiculite, inoculate them with the fungus of choice, and wait. And wait. It takes eight to sixteen weeks in a temperature- and humidity-controlled environment to see if the fungus will spalt the wood.

Sometimes it doesn't, or it comes out rotted mush. The artist in Robinson likes the fact that even under laboratory conditions, "I don't have complete control over what is going to happen. I'm directing it, but not controlling it."

The scientist in her likes teasing out spalting's underlying principles. She's published her results in forest products and wood science journals, as well as fine woodworking magazines. She even published a protocol for a scion image program to do zone line color analysis of spalted wood samples.

When she finishes her PhD, Robinson plans to teach and continue her research. But she also plans to keep using her drill press and lathe to turn out works of art. "Wood," she says, "will always be part of my life, allergies or not."