Editor’s Note 1/26/21: This story was updated to reflect the new dates for Prima Lingua: First Words of the Earth after the exhibition had been postponed in December 2020

Noticing a mountain’s allure doesn’t take much imagination. But recognizing the artistry of lichens’ cell structure requires the discerning eye of Aspen’s Jody Guralnick. Before an array of her nature-inspired work arrives at Denver Botanic Gardens’ Freyer–Newman Center on January 17, we foraged through Guralnick’s studio to trace the roots of her creativity.

1. Despite her current surroundings, Guralnick, 67, (pictured above) launched her career in a more metropolitan locale. After attending art school in Boston, she studied painting in London: “I was 19. All I wanted to do was go to Europe and smoke cigarettes and wear high heels.” Guralnick then packed up her paint sets and moved to New York City, where she lived for nearly nine years until her husband’s job brought them to Aspen. “When I lived in cities, I did a lot of work that involved picking up scraps, like cigarette packages,” she says. “In Aspen, I realized the woods have a different type of litter.”

Photo by Blake Gordon

2. That natural detritus entranced Guralnick, and she began uniting scientific practices (categorizing, dissecting) with artistic methods. In doing so, she hopes to make viewers aware of the beautiful yet fragile microscopic universes that comprise the planet’s endangered ecosystems. “I’m seeing the impacts of climate change in my own backyard,” she says. “We’re kicking over the building blocks of nature before even understanding they’re there.”

"Language of Abundance"
“Language of Abundance” by Jody Guralnick. Photo by Blake Gordon

3. Andy Warhol had Edie Sedgwick. Pablo Picasso had Dora Maar. Jody Guralnick has…fungi. But as far as muses go, yeast, mold, mushrooms, and lichen have a lot to offer. “When fungus grows, it casts these lacy mycelial threads,” she says. “It’s so baroque and over the top.” Guralnick paints those ornate patterns in her latest series, Prima Lingua: First Words of the Earth, including “Language of Abundance” (pictured above), which can be seen at the Freyer–Newman Center.

Photo by Blake Gordon

4. Encasing seeds in wax is a classic method for preserving them. Guralnick plays with that concept using various fronds, pinecones, and other organic debris she collects while hiking near her home. First, she dips them in a porcelain slip, then in wax, often incorporating an item made by people, such as a book, to create a conversation between nature and humanity.

Photo by Blake Gordon

5. In Guralnick’s studio, mushrooms are often in for grisly fates: For her ongoing collection of “mushroom self-portraits,” she adheres fungi to paper. The decaying matter turns an inky black and slowly seeps down the surface, forming hauntingly beautiful figures reminiscent of Rorschach tests.


Photo by Blake Gordon

6. An old wood and brass microscope that once belonged to Guralnick’s grandfather holds shelf space in her studio. Although she rarely uses the bulky instrument today, it reminds her of the science-minded relatives (her dad was a surgeon) who’ve influenced her work. “I grew up liking taxonomy, knowing the names of things,” Guralnick says. “My bedtime reading is field guides.”

This article was originally published in 5280 December 2020.
Angela Ufheil
Angela Ufheil
Angela Ufheil is a Denver-based journalist and 5280's former digital senior associate editor.