Katherine Ball: Living on Indy Island

  • Katherine Ball, at her Indy Island home. Photo by Stephen Simonetto

When Katherine Ball arrived in Indianapolis on Aug. 8, so did the rain.

After record-setting, desiccating heat in July, Indianapolis experienced a bit of relief thanks to the showers. While weather officials recorded just under an inch of rain in Indianapolis, backyard rain gauges showed more than two inches of rain had fallen in the area around artist Andrea Zittel’s Indianapolis Island.

The White River crested at just over five feet at the National Weather Service gauge near the Indianapolis Museum of Art (IMA). That was up from three feet three days prior, not far off the record low level set in 2007 at 2.79 feet.

It was as if the influx of rain had awakened the White River from a lazy summer’s slumber to welcome the IMA’s latest Indianapolis Island resident.

Katherine Ball arrived in Indianapolis by bus — she prefers not to fly — then immediately left the city the next morning to seek out, as if on a pilgrimage, the source of the west fork of the White River, a place accessible by car, or in Ball’s case, by bicycle.

Reengineered as a drainage ditch on a Randolph County farm field, this section of the river launched the beginning of Ball’s journey into her IMA project titled No Swimming. Before she headed downstream, she collected a water sample to carry with her to the Island, testing for phosphates, nitrates and water hardness.

Biological solutions

Ball’s journey to Indianapolis is as meandering and circuitous as the White River itself. She spent last year cycling with four other people across the United States to produce a documentary about community solutions to climate change. On that trip, she interviewed scientists, including mycologist Paul Stamets, who uses mushrooms to filter water.

Having learned about the Indianapolis Island six-week artist residency from her art teacher Jen Delos Reyes, assistant professor at Portland State University’s Art and Social Practice program, Ball reveled in dreams of living on a little island in a lovely lake surrounded by a beautiful forest and swimming every day. This is not surprising given that she spent her youth swimming in Lake St. Clair, a body of water connected with the Great Lakes System just outside of Detroit.

“It was such a nice thing to be able to swim in the neighborhood lake,” recalls Ball. She envisioned a similar experience in Indianapolis.

“And then I found out the [Indianapolis Island] lake was polluted,” says Ball. She noted that water quality samples from the lake in April 2010 revealed E. colilevels at 428, roughly twice the Indiana state standard of 235. E. coli is a bacterial organism commonly found in the lower intestines of mammals, including humans.

Ball remembered the pioneering work of Washington State mycologist Paul Stamets, who uses mushrooms to remediate — or clean — water. She wanted to create what she describes as pseudo-scientific experiments to cleanse and heal the lake. Consequently, she put her masters of fine arts degree on hold to apply for the residency.

Given what she had learned on her bicycle trip, she wanted to experiment with solving environmental problems with biological solutions.

“It’s about trying a different approach, using a biological solution instead of a petrochemical solution. Mushrooms are one area that we should look more closely into because of how little research has been done on them,” says Ball.

Recently certified as an Indiana Mushroom Identification Expert by the Indiana State Department of Health, Eric Osborne runs Magnificent Mushrooms, a family-run business in southern Indiana. He has studied the work of Paul Stamets for more than 10 years. [see sidebar] Stamets is the author of a number of books, including Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms Can Save the World, and founder of Fungi Perfecti.

Osborne is encouraged by Ball’s project. “I believe that [Stamets] has truly instigated a paradigmatic shift in the ecological crisis. Mycelium will continue to grow, adapting to and consuming the wastes we leave behind,” says Osborne. “We can either choose to consciously ride the mycelium into the future or be left in its wake.”

  • Ball’s Indy Island has a window that faces to the south. Photo by Stephen Simonetto

Mycobooms to the rescue

Ball, 27, is staking her future with the mycelium. By the end of her first week — with help from anyone willing to lend a hand — Ball will have constructed seven 20′ long by 12″ in diameter mycobooms made from untreated, hydrocarbon-free burlap, filled with locally sourced, non-genetically modified straw from Central Indiana Organics, inoculated with mushroom mycelium spawn from Fungi Perfecti, following Stamets’ guidelines in Mycelium Running.

These will serve as floating water filtration and purification systems. As they float around the lake, Ball expects that the growing mycelium will digest the E. coli as well as remove excess phosphorus, nitrogen and heavy metals from the water.

“This is a perfect opportunity to experiment with what Stamets has been pioneering in the field of mycology,” says Ball.

Through a stipend provided by the IMA, Ball purchased two mushroom varieties from Fungi Perfecti to carry out her work, Oyster (Plurotus ostreatus) and King Strapharia (Stropharia rugoso annulata), because both are reported to have specific anti-microbial effects on E. coli and they remediate pollutants.

That’s at the heart of but only part of the work she intends to accomplish during her six-week residency, which runs from Aug. 12 until Sept. 25.