Writer Beth Exley / Photographer Jessica Whitty
Walking into The Hive in Jewellery Quarter I’m greeted by the smell of espresso, and a few quiet crafters. The space is light, airy and has that post-industrial factory-refurb aesthetic which permeates many of the Jewellery Quarter’s establishments.
Birmingham based artist and musician Old Bort, warmly welcomes me into the space in which she has been working over the course of April. As the fourth of eight artists set to complete a residency funded by the Ruskin Mill Land Trust at the Hive this year, Old Bort has been working around the theme of mushrooms.
Old Bort’s passion for mycophilia blossomed during the second lockdown of 2020. After shielding for months, walks in the Jewellery Quarter’s graveyard became a daily ritual to allow Old Bort to visit some nearby greenspaces. In the graveyard, she spotted mushrooms popping up and became fixated on the way they grew and changed.
For a long time, Old Bort was simply painting what she found and saw in the Jewellery Quarter, so she says it’s nice to have a little more control over the process of growing them herself at the Hive as part of her artistic practice.
Upon entering the space, Old Bort grabs a box of pink oyster mushrooms that she’s been sketching out in chalk. Her intense love of mushrooms is apparent off the bat, and it’s enthralling to learn more from someone who is so knowledgeable and passionate about the topic.
On the wall behind Old Bort, there’s a mind map drawn together with string – the kind of thing you’d expect to see in a detective’s office in a 1980s crime drama. Instead of evidence and suspects, however, this map is filled with notes and images relating to Old Bort’s interests and influences.
These range from Mesoamerican icons to a particularly gruesome shot of an unfortunate bug suffering from a case of Ophiocordyceps Unilateralis, otherwise known as zombie ant fungus (I’ll let you google that one for yourself).
In stark contrast, there are also crocheted mushroom berets, a sweet, unexpected edition considering the aforementioned zombie ant fungus.
The process of cultivating the mushrooms is central to Old Bort’s practice. Mainly grown on coffee grounds from her own and the Hive’s kitchen, the mushrooms represent a way of creating food out of waste. Old Bort excitedly shows me a huge bag full of Shiitakes she’s grown this month, and tells me about the risotto she’s going to use them in.
Apparently, she’s also found a crop of some mysterious mushrooms growing on the roof of the Hive, but thinks it might be a bit of a risk to try and introduce those into her culinary endeavours.
Around Old Bort’s temporary studio, there’s also a selection of still life drawings that Old Bort has created during her residency. A personal favourite is the black and white charcoal piece drawn over the course of about four days. Moving down the paper, the mushrooms appear to grow before your very eyes in a way that is reminiscent of Jenny Saville’s life drawings, capturing the movement of the subject.
The kinetic energy of Old Bort’s work partly comes from her choice of mediums. She likes to work in a way that really utilises her hands – whether that be smudging chalk and charcoal around, working with fibres through crochet, or sculpting clay.
After speaking with Old Bort, I feel I have learnt more about mushrooms than I have in my entire life up until that point. I can’t wait to check out some of the films and documentaries she has recommended. The Girl with all the Gifts (2016) a mushroom-related horror, filmed in Birmingham is probably top of the list.
For more information on Old Bort and her residency at the Hive visit her website: www.oldbort.wordpress.com
For more from The Hive visit: www.rmlt.org.uk/the-hive-jq