Fungus and beauty are usually not thought of as synonymous, but Willow Gentile is doing her part to connect the two. Gentile, who earned a BFA in painting from the University of Wisconsin Whitewater, currently has five fungus-inspired sculptural works on display at Café Steam.
Paper— including newspaper, mulberry paper, and paper mache— is the primary ingredient in Gentile’s works, but they also include surprising elements like crocheted yarn, chicken wire, and bird seed.
“I am experimenting with physical depth, shadow, and repetition mirroring the eco-systems of mushrooms,” explains Gentile. She hopes to present an abstraction of “chaotic growth within a confined space.”
Gentile’s works are sometimes inspired by miniscule aspects of fungi: “During my research I was intrigued by pictures taken by the electron microscope of fungi during pollination and of the pollen itself,” says Gentile. She lets these tiny details “mushroom” into large wall-hanging works. “Stages of Growth,” one of her sculptures at Steam, consists of paired segments that measure seven feet long.
Like shelf fungus on a tree, Gentile’s sculptures, which, though far from mono-chromatic, are composed primarily in shades of white, sprout organically from Steam’s walls and waft over coffee drinkers, imparting a sense of fragile regeneration fostered by intricate details like repeated paper cones or splayed fibers molded into delicate forms. “The little nuances are what I’m drawn to,” says Gentile.
“Abundance,” one of the works on display, is a perfect fit for Steam because it uses coffee and tea to stain some of the sculpture’s elements. “The incorporation of coffee and tea into the media definitely struck a chord with my barista heart,” says William Forsman, Steam’s general manager.
“I become more fascinated with her work the more I look at it… I have had countless customers ask about the work. It has been quite a hit here at Steam!” says Steam’s resident curator Claire Hilton. For Hilton, “Art is a fundamental piece of the chemistry of Cafe Steam.”
In all, Gentile estimates that she’s spent about 720 hours on the display. Some pieces from the display have been part of other exhibits. For instance, “Abundance” was shown at a Mantorville Art Guild exhibit last year. Gentile’s work was also selected for the emerging artists’ exhibit at Crossings gallery in Zumbrota and for a Visual Arts Minnesota show in St. Cloud.
Part of Gentile’s fascination with fungi has to do with the cycle of decomposition which she says “is such a crucial part of our eco system.” This might explain why she revels in “making materials that are unexpected like newspaper into something else.”
Gentile also enjoys teaching drawing, watercolors, printmaking and other fine arts at Rochester’s 125LIVE, a center for active adults. Nicole Minton, program manager at 125LIVE, says Gentile’s approach to art instruction “is very inviting in a way that brings someone who is new to the arts a sense of comfort.”
Both Gentile’s love of art and her fungal sculptures spread their spores. As Minton puts it, Gentile has a way of “inviting you into that moment.”
See more of Willow Gentile’s works at willowgentile.squarespace.com. If you are interested in taking one of Gentile’s art classes, find out more at willominaartstudio.com.