Beauty and the Yeast

It's the spore the merrier for this local artist.

Those who know Viviane Le Courtois-Mitchell have come to expect those moments when she reaches into a garbage pail, plucks out a crusty banana peel -- and frames it.

Last November, for instance, she squeaked open her refrigerator door, rummaged around and, in the back by the bread and veggies, unearthed a tortilla. A tortilla that had been there so long it had sprouted a rainbow of mold.

"If I leave it there longer," Viviane thought, "I wonder if the colors will get more interesting?"

'Shroom service: Viviane Le Courtois-Mitchell with her kombucha-inspired art at Edge.
James Bludworth
'Shroom service: Viviane Le Courtois-Mitchell with her kombucha-inspired art at Edge.

After a few more months, they did.

So interesting, in fact, that Viviane recently wrapped the rancid tortilla in plastic and nailed it to a gallery wall under the title "Forgotten Tortilla."

"Everyone loved it," she says. "It looked like a landscape, like little mountains with snow on top."

And so, no one was too surprised when mushrooms sprouted in her closet.


"Here it is," Viviane says. "Would you like to hold it?"

"Not particularly."

"Go ahead. It's okay."

We're in a back room of Viviane's house in south Denver, just inside the closet. At our feet sit several dozen glass jars, kitchen bowls and even an aquarium, all filled with a murky brown liquid topped by white blobs of bacteria and yeast: kombucha mushrooms. The jars have been sitting here several weeks now, the mushrooms fermenting, gestating and multiplying away while Viviane prepared her latest show for Edge Gallery. The mushroom lab, a multimedia installation featuring albino spores in all their gooey splendor, runs through March 5.

"What do you think?"

Viviane, a slight thirty-year-old with long brown hair, wire-frame glasses and a soft French accent, holds a specimen to the light, just inches from her face, and the mushroom jiggles like blubber.

"Yuck."

"Yes," she says. "It is kind of strange."

Strange?

The damn thing looks like an egg-white omelette in a glass of coffee, a banana cream pie in a pitcher of Railyard Ale, a dead jellyfish in a bucket of sewage, the pickled Octopus Boy I saw once at a state fair freak show. At any moment, I half expect the creature to leap out of the jar and latch on to her face.

"Yes," Viviane says again. "It is kind of strange."

Yet just five years ago, kombucha mushrooms were all the rage. Half the planet cultivated the pods in their basements and sipped kombucha tea like Evian. In certain circles (such as my family circle), kombucha mushrooms (also known as Manchurian mushrooms and panacea mushrooms) were thought to counter everything from coffee breath to cancer to AIDS.

The first recorded use of kombucha tea dates back to 221 B.C., when Chinese herbalists hailed its powers as magical. The mushrooms, which contain enzymes, vitamins and detoxifying acids that boost the immune system, then migrated to Japan, Russia and eventually Boulder, where today devotees name the pods, sing to them and share their "babies" like good karma. If properly placed inside a glass jar, kept in a dark place and fed refined sugar and black tea, the kombucha will produce a cidery elixir that supposedly cures whatever ails you.

"The mushroom asks only for loving care, and it will not only produce health for its caretaker," promises one Kombucha Foundation official, "but will also allow the opportunity to spread health to anyone and everyone through its propagations."

My wife's grandma said it turned her hair from white to black. My friend's neighbor said it healed his pancreatic ulcer. And my uncle's friend's sister said it evicted her deadbeat boyfriend.

"Yes," Viviane says. "It's supposed to be good for you."

Although a kombucha-tea-chugging woman in Iowa died a few years ago from an acid imbalance (not unlike a character on an episode of The X-Files), the mushroom's attraction remains as strong as ever -- it's now available on the Internet. Viviane fell under its spell five years ago. The moment she was introduced to her first kombucha, the mushroom stimulated the part of her brain that screams, "Create!"

So she did.

Already an accomplished sculptor and painter, Viviane dried the mushrooms into a variety of textures, from jerky to snakeskin. She laid them on rice paper so that the tea soaked into an array of halo shapes. She grew them into different sizes (they conform to the shape of their containers). And she even sewed them into a leathery figurine called "Mushroom Goddess."

"I always try to do something different," she says.

But one thing she won't do is drink kombucha tea.

"Oh, no," she says. "I don't like it. I throw it away."

In Viviane's current installation, two rows of rice-paper kombucha hang along the walls of the gallery. An aquarium holds a huge fermenting mushroom. On a back-room table, Viviane displays more live kombucha in various stages of evolution and encourages visitors to pick up a magnifying glass for a closer inspection. The entire exhibit is strategically lighted to accentuate the kombucha's creepy beauty. The result is like a cross between a biology class and a Japanese tearoom.

"But I don't want them to drink the tea," Viviane says. "I don't want to poison anybody."

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