Photo: Eric Sutton
On my way from the parking lot to the office one day—one of the many cubicles found on the second floor of the Winter Park Village shopping center—I spotted a patch of large mushrooms emerging from the grass. As I got closer and examined further, I discovered they weren’t live mushrooms at all, but instead someone had squished small brown paper bags into mushroom-like shapes and then stuck them neatly into the ground. “Strange,” I thought. “Who has the time and effort to do that?”
“Doug did it,” said a co-worker. I don’t remember who it was that confessed, but it doesn’t matter. It was five years ago, back when Doug, this other person and I all worked for the same publishing company. What I do remember thinking is, “Why would a grown man plant fake mushrooms in patches of grass?” Little did I know that he was on to something big—even world wide.
I was driving down Mills Ave. when I encountered my second planting. This time I smiled when I saw the faux fungi. I couldn’t help it. I imagined Doug, in the middle of the night, scurrying to arrange all the mushrooms into a bouquet. And then after he’d plant the last one, he’d stand back with his hands on his hips and admire his good work, knowing all the while that someone would react like I had. Brilliant.
Soon, I caught myself searching, wishing for a new planting. I had a new appreciation for the Spore Project because I considered myself in on the secret—even though I had never talked to Doug.
Doug and I worked on opposite sides of the building, so we never had the opportunity to get to know one another. So I had pegged him as “that mushroom guy” until one day in our office, there was a huge mobile occupying a former giant space. “That’s cool,” I said. “Who made that?”
“Doug,” said the secretary.
“Doug,” said my friend Zach the following week.
“Doug,” said my friend Ryan the week after that.
Now that I had a reference, I began noticing Doug’s mobiles everywhere, even in businesses. No one else makes paper mushrooms or mobiles so it’s easy to tag. It impresses me how heavily this artist has left his mark on our city. Orlando’s impressionable canvas needs more of his kind of forward-thinking.
What do you think you’re most known for among the Orlando community?
My good looks for one. [Laughs] Or my mushrooms. I’ve been doing that thing for ten years, so a lot of people have seen them. When people find out that I’m the one that makes them, they scream, “Oh my God! You’re THAT mushroom guy!”
Tell me more about the Spore Project.
In high school, I brown-bagged my lunch. I made this mushroom shape out of my leftover bag because I was bored. It was just a thing I started doing. I kept making them and giving them to my friend every day. She kept them in her locker. When it came time to clean out her locker, out spilled all my mushrooms–it looked pretty cool.
Years later, when I moved to Orlando, I found a way to stick them in people’s yards. At first, it sorta was just something funny I was doing—but everybody liked it so much. I started doing festivals and then people started paying me to make them. Then it got to the point where I was like, “Wow. What else can I do with them?” Since then, some schools have asked me to come in and teach the kids how to make the mushrooms and I created an awareness program to support and promote art in schools. It’s something that I feel is often overlooked.
Do you plot the way you’re going to layout the mushrooms?
No. It’s just kind of controlled randomness, I guess. There’s always a cluster with a few smaller clusters that branch out.
Has a mushroom planting ever backfired?
The only time was when I did Winter Park Village. The manager asked me not to do it anymore via e-mail. I guess the maintenance people had to pick them up. But that’s been it.
Do you take pictures of your work?
Yeah. I used to document every single one of plantings but that got to be too much.
Another art form you’re known for in the community is mobiles. How did you start making those?
I had a friend who had a really large atrium, or lobby, in her house. She wanted a big piece of art. I kept trying to come up with hanging structures and it evolved into this mobile shape. It was really simple, just a three piece hanging on one line. Then I built another one for a place I worked at the time; they also had a really big lobby. Then it just started. People really liked them and I really enjoyed making them at the time. It became a lot of extra money, but for me it was just a really fun thing to explore. There aren’t many books out there about how to make mobiles. It’s a lot of trial and error and a lot of kicking and screaming.
Do mobiles symbolize anything to you?
Not really. I really like the fact that there is so much going on with them, yet they’re simple and made of basic shapes. You can stare at them for hours and they always change. They react with the environment, like when someone walks by they are light enough to catch the breeze.
Had you seen a mobile anywhere else before?
There was a really big mobile in Washington done by Alexander Calder. I went there with my class in eighth grade. I mean, that thing was massive. It had such a delicate movement, but the pieces were huge. You couldn’t help but wonder how the thing was moving. It was just amazing to look at. I think it inspired me, even though I didn’t even think to start making a mobile until twenty years later.
Where do you come up with your ideas?
They just come. My brain doesn’t stop. I get bombarded by thoughts all the time.
What are the tools and resources you like to use?
For most of my life, it’s just been using stuff I find. I’ve never really had any money to spend on what I want, so it’s always been garbage turned into artwork.
If you had access to any resource, what kind of project would you work on?
I would love to be able to work with a fabricator and create large indoor and outdoor sculptures. I’d like to design the mini version and let somebody else figure out how to build and install it. It’d be so fun to create on a large scale like that.
What else is fun for you?
Making things and creating experiences. I’ve always been a real big fan of immersive environments, places that when you go into them you forget where you are. That’s the feeling I try to evoke with my installations anyway. They’re dark, there’s sound effects and incense so that you might think you’re out in the desert or underwater, rather than in a studio or gallery.
What is the goal of your art?
To create an experience for people, something they can tell their friends about and remember for years to come.
Like your Migration installation? I remember that vividly. How many matchbooks did it take to make that?
How long did it take you to make?
About a year.
Where did that idea come from?
I was sitting at a bar and playing with a matchbook and it just turned into a camel—it’s like everything I do, an oops! I thought the camel was cute, so I made another one. I don’t know why but I just decided to keep making them. 4,000 seemed like an impressive number so I went for it.
Is making art your full time job?
I do side jobs. Right now, I’m doing some gardening on the side. But yeah, it’s my full time job that I don’t make much money at. It’s what I put my full energy into. I just scrape by doing the other stuff. I want to give art my full attention. It’s something I can’t just half-ass do. I have to keep at it so it will grow exponentially. I’ll eventually get money from it through grants, sponsorships and private donations. I might be sixty-something but … you know.
Do you think Orlando is a good breeding ground for your type of art?
I like it here because you can kind of do anything you want to. I can set up a show in a field, or whatever, and I usually get a good response as long as I’m not doing anything that effects the flow of traffic or damages property. That’s the challenge too, finding places that you’ll make an impact without causing damage. Orlando is still very young which means we have a batter chance of impacting what happens later. We are the pioneers.
Have you ever wanted a normal job?
I graduated with a degree in Industrial Design. So I’ve always wanted to be a designer. I tried to do that, but I couldn’t find anything that I was passionate about. I can dump all my effort into any of my art shows. All my other jobs seem to level out on me very quickly.
What is the hardest part of your day?
I don’t know if I have hard part of my day. I mean, I work a lot but … what do I do? I’ve actually been on a four-month hiatus, just giving myself a break because I’ve been going non-stop for three years. So I guess the hardest part will be trying to stay focused. When I have shows that require thousands of pieces, I just need to think of the big picture. Fatigue can be difficult and fighting loneliness as well. I’m by myself a lot when I work and that gets to be bard. But I have lots of friends–they keep me from going crazy.
Why do you feel it important to educate kids about the arts?
When I was little, I was very shy. Making things was such an outlet for me. I have no idea what would happen to me if I didn’t have art—I don’t sit still very well. Art gave me a since of pride, even if I didn’t show it to anyone. It teaches kids different perspectives and ways of looking at things that can be applied later in life.
Who are the people that inspired you?
My parents really inspired me. Growing up we always built stuff. My dad was into carpentry and word working. My Mom was into crafts. In the early 70’s everyone was doing that—leather working and macramé. It got me really into building stuff and it helped that my Mom always had materials around for me to use. I also owe a lot to my middle school and high school art teachers–they were extremely encouraging and influential.
Name five artist must haves.
Patience. Drive. Dedication. Humility. And HAVE respect.
I’m intrigued by the fact you didn’t name any materials.
You don’t really need anything. If you have all those virtues, you can do anything. And did I say adaptability? If I didn’t, let’s put that one in there. There are so many changes in life, and you have to be willing to adapt to those changes. I think that’s really important. If you are stuck in your ways, you’re going to drive yourself crazy. Things happen in your life that you have no control over. Like, if I went blind, would I still be an artist? Yeah. I would just do things differently. I’d become more of a sculptor or something, but I wouldn’t just stop being an artist.
What is your biggest secret?
I can’t tell you that.
Okay then. What installation project are you working on now?
Right now I’m working on a few different things, my third U.F.O. project and Migration 5 & 6. I always work in multiple projects. Oh, and in May I want to do world-wide mushrooming. I’m hoping people around the world will set out their mushrooms during that month and send me pictures. Already, I’ve had schools in Finland and Taiwan send me pictures of the kids and their mushrooms.
Do you mind being “that mushroom guy”?
Sure. I can be mushroom guy. My goal is to put one on the moon within twenty years.
*Interview Date: 10/30/09
Learn more about the Spore Project and how to make your own mushrooms at www.dougrhodehamel.com.