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Harvey Wilhelm
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“Death, Decay, Redefined” spreads spores at Smith Gallery

Attendees+discuss+the+complexities+of+Zainab+Thompson+%6022s+piece+titled+Death.+Photo+by+Shabana+Gupta.
Attendees discuss the complexities of Zainab Thompson `22’s piece titled “Death.” Photo by Shabana Gupta.

The words death and decay can evoke many different images, from mourning to urban blight, but to Zainab Thompson `22, they mean something simultaneously simple and infinitely complex: the surreal nature of the circle of life. Thompson’s recent show in Smith Gallery, “Death, Decay, Redefined,” explored these terms in detail with interactive elements and additions throughout the show’s two- week run.

Thompson credited an interest in “reading and writing horror surrealism” for inspiring many of her intricate, otherworldly pieces, stating that “Death, Decay, Redefined” combined new and unfamiliar mediums and methods.

“The show was really just combining things I like and then adding in a couple of things that are outside my comfort zone, like sculpture and a full human body,” said Thompson.

The roots of inspiration for Thompson’s show weren’t roots at all: they were mycelium. She had wanted to take a fungal biology course at Grinnell for a long time but had never

“Death, Decay, Redefined” in its final form, with all pieces present. Photo by Shabana Gupta.

successfully registered for the course due to its popularity, so when she ran into fungal biology professor Kathy Jacobson, Thompson asked for recommendations on where to start her own research.

The professor mentioned a documentary called “Fantastic Fungi,” from which Thompson drew significant inspiration for “Death, Decay, Redefined.”

“I would pause it in parts and draw mushrooms on screen that I really liked the look of, looking for fungal databases and picking out species I liked,” said Thompson.

“I realized I wanted to cluster groups of the species I was finding. The ‘Death’ piece, for example, features three species of mushroom that either cause fatality via consumption or are indirectly linked to death in some other way.”

The show involved an interactive element wherein visitors are invited to fold and decorate their own origami mushrooms to be placed around the exhibit, as well as more complex 3-D paper-sculpted mushrooms that were part of the original installation. Thompson expressed the sculptural element was one of the more complex aspects of her show.

“The 3-D paper mushrooms went through quite a few iterations,” said Thompson. “The versions that ended up in the show were probably the fourth, fifth and sixth design iterations I came up with.”

Thompson expressed that the most difficult part of her show was the maintenance. Due

Updates on evolution and interaction with Thompson’s exhibit were displayed in the gallery. Photo by Shabana Gupta.

to the show’s fluid, ever-changing nature, Thompson had to constantly reevaluate her space. “It was a living space that changed and was added to over the course of the show,” said Thompson. “I was spending a lot of time even after the show opened going in there and updating.”

Even when working in the third dimension, Thompson utilized pen and ink as her main mediums to convey the symbolism she aimed to achieve. This medium was similarly conducive to her desire for human interaction with the show.

“Somewhere in the show is a metaphor about death and growth and how we’re all being recycled,” said Thompson.

Thompson said that her personal favorite piece of the show was her “Death” piece, explaining that it pushed her as an artist. “I love how she came out,” said Thompson. “Figure drawing is not a strength of mine and pushing myself to put out something that looked as anatomically correct as possible was a fun challenge.”

Thompson stated that the most rewarding part of “Death, Decay, Redefined” was being able to see her pieces brought to life with interaction.

“The feeling I would get walking into Smith and seeing people working on their own origami mushrooms, it was something they were choosing to do, and it always seemed like people were getting a kick out of it,” said Thompson.

“I definitely didn’t do the show myself, but still it was mostly my work, in a room with my name on it, and that felt really validating in a lot of respects. It really meant a lot.”

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