Arts and artists

Finding inspiration underfoot

by Virginia Friedman
Posted 11/28/23

During the pandemic, like many people, Germantown artist Kiki Gaffney spent more time outdoors. It brought her both peace and inspiration.

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Arts and artists

Finding inspiration underfoot


During the pandemic, like many people, Germantown artist Kiki Gaffney spent more time outdoors. The “beautiful chaos” of nature, as she puts it, brought her both peace and inspiration.

An avid runner and cyclist, Gaffney lives right around the corner from the Rittenhouse Town entrance to the Wissahickon and has long used the park’s extensive trail network for exercise. When her pandemic hikes led her to slow down, and walk through the woods at a slower pace, she began to see things differently. 

“That’s when I started to really notice things like the trees that had fallen down,” said Gaffney, who has long been known for her ability to connect patterns in nature to those that are manmade. “I remember thinking that they were so sculptural, so beautiful. That started to spark some ideas for a new direction. I started to zero in on these details.”

So Gaffney is looking at the world – and her art – a bit differently these days. And the impact of those hikes can now be seen in Silent Symphony, her current series of new works. She is taking a close look at fungi – a fundamental, yet frequently overlooked, part of the park’s ecosystem – and producing her own take on how to see it. 

“One of the things that I’ve been thinking about for a long time is systems – how energy is moved, how resources are moved around, how things communicate,” Gaffney said. “And so I got really excited learning about fungi and this mycorrhizal network.”

Her focus on this new subject matter comes as the rest of the world is also becoming more aware of how tiny fungi play a massive, powerful role in the natural world.

A recent residency at the Denver Botanic Gardens, for instance, provided Gaffney the opportunity to learn from scientists onsite. “We were talking about how plants migrate, like seed dispersal, but also cloning, so I was thinking about that with these pieces – this notion of cloning as a way of reproduction,” she said. 

In her new work, images often mirror one another, and while similar, each representation is depicted in its own way, in its own media. Detailed graphite is mirrored by vibrant green glitter in one, by flowing watercolor and thick daubs of paint in another. One gets the sense of a dynamic and entangled world – with evident harmony in the “beautiful chaos.”

“I use arrows all the time to indicate movement,” Gaffney notes. “I use gold leaf as a way to talk about light because it looks different from every angle. The same with glitter – it gives that sense of light and movement.”

Works such as “Silent Symphony II” and “Silent Symphony III” zoom in, offering a close-up view of the undulating gills under a mushroom cap, yet in a format so large (22.5 x 30”) that they take on a breathtaking feel. Work such as “Silent Symphony I” zooms out, capturing the elegance and movement of sweeping, towering mountains. (Look closely, though, and you’ll see elements of mycorrhizal webbing at the base of the range.)

The title of the series, “Silent Symphony,” captures this dichotomy: “[T]he silent part because the networks are underground, not visible to our field of view, and symphony because of how these structures work in unison with other species in nature to create an overall harmonious system,” Gaffney explains.

Working in her trademark graphite, Gaffney meticulously brings the underground, magical world to life. And just like the symbiotic nature of mycorrhizae and tree roots, there is an exchange. 

“My process is a real conversation,” she says. “I have to see what it is telling me, what it is asking for, what it is revealing. I usually don’t have the full vision as I’m working, and as I make more marks, things start to reveal themselves.”

This is striking in a recently started work, and as she lays images of the underside of a mushroom cap side by side, it is quickly apparent that they resemble a more familiar structure – lungs. Gaffney’s excitement over this discovery is palpable, and also reflects the sparks of curiosity she hopes others will experience in seeing her work.

“The more you investigate, the more you inquire and question, it just leads you into places that you can’t imagine,” she said. “As an artist, that’s really important. And the question becomes ‘how can I push this in ways that allow people to think on a different level, or to look at something from a more nuanced perspective?”

Gaffney is represented by Pentimenti Gallery in Center City. Look for her new work in early 2024.