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Art as a Vessel for Mycology
ART AS A VESSEL FOR MYCOLOGY
Sam Shoemaker on art, amateurism and why it’s always good to remember the 15% rule.
Sam Shoemaker is an artist, mushroom grower, and mycologist based in Los Angeles. His most recent works have been exploring ceramic and glass sculptures as vessels for growing mushrooms, and the processes of collaborating with these non-human organisms to create visually striking and biologically habitable sculptures.
Sukayna: What began your journey with mushrooms and how did you end up making them central to, or at least a large part of your art practice?
Sam: I had a studio down the street from where the Los Angeles Mycological Society met, I had an interest in mushrooms through John Cage and Fluxus and some of the other mushroom projects that surrounded the art of that period, but I didn’t really know anything about them. Then I found myself in the back of these lecture halls where these mycologists and biologists would get together and nerd out on whatever science had come out in the past six months. And at that time mushrooms weren’t really the hot topic that they are now – I was one of maybe three people under the age of fifty-five attending those lectures – it was really a way to get out of my head and do something that was separate from my studio. To have a hobby that didn’t tie into art – and then it ended up becoming art!
I tried to keep it out of the studio just so I had other things to occupy my head with, but just the obsession grew and grew and grew and then one day I let the obsession into the studio. And I was terrified that being so excited by a subject would lead to lousy artwork, because when you’re really excited by something sometimes it can put blinders on you. I need a critical distance from the things I’m doing so I was really resistant to it. Then I started working with mushrooms, and I was really excited by the subject, and I found that people respond to things that you’re excited by. That sounds so obvious but I always thought that art was so much more calculated before that. I have more engaging conversations making work from the things that are interesting to me and for the past ten years that’s largely been mushrooms and mycology and all of the new science surrounding it. I think that’s been a really fruitful place to make work from.
SP: It’s produced some really amazing pieces. How has it gone developing from your initial instincts to trying new things and working with new strains and species?
SS: There is a benefit to working with these very unknowable and often unpredictable collaborators. You can apply all of the science in the world to this kind of work and it can still go pear shaped. I think the works that I find most rewarding are the simplest ones where I’m able to set a stage for these living collaborators to do their thing. I’ve always been interested in how art evolves over time so it’s really great to do projects that aren’t just hammered out over the weekend, that I really get to live with them and spend time with them and have this very contemplative space where we’re checking in with each other over the course of many many months. It can be a headache, especially when something goes south at the very last minute, but you learn to talk mushroom. That intuition and experience is so much more valuable than all of the books, and all the hours that I’ve spent poring over forums on the internet. You’re really making up the science to do all of this. I kept looking for answers to some of the questions that came up and the people that I talked to said, you know, this has never been done. So that was terrifying but also very exciting. I’m not doing highly scientific things but this is a field where not many things have been tried. You don’t have to have a PHD to find really interesting engagements with some of these mushrooms.
SP: One of the most exciting things about the possibilities of amateur mycology is how people can pick it up and try things and learn along the way, and also the connections that people have found along the way. A lot of people who get into fungi are like ‘I’ve found all these amazing people around the mushrooms’, has that been the case for you?
SS: Yeah no, it’s been great. I feel that things are changing a bit. I think mushrooms are becoming mainstream, which I think overall is a good thing. I’m thrilled that people share my obsession now and are starting to take this subject seriously and provide institutional support and funding for it, but people are also seeing dollar signs, and it’s becoming a little less ‘countercultural’. The secret is kind of out in the open now.
I would say people have been very very kind, but I think as an artist and as someone who doesn’t have a science background I haven’t put myself too out in the open until recently. I’m starting to be more open about my process, just because there was a fear of embarrassing myself really. But now I’m starting to recognise, oh I’ve actually done something a bit unique and I can actually share that with people, but I’ve been in the shadows for the most part with my science. Like any community there’s tension and people are starting to see dollar signs and a lot of people feel like their intellectual property is threatened and then there’s you know the art world – there’s the same personal dramas and dynamics.
SP: It becomes a ‘something world’ when it opens up, doesn’t it? And certainly something that’s becoming a lot more financially exploitable. You’re in quite a unique situation among artists, at least that I know, in that, with your gourmet growing business you can support your artistic practice with the same insights and knowledge that you use to create works, and vice versa.
SS: I’ve learned a lot from growing gourmets and doing things that don’t end up being Art with a capital A. Not to get into heavyhanded metaphors about thinking like the mushroom and being omni-directional like a mushroom hyphae but there is a little bit of that too. It’s the food, it’s remediation, it’s having your interests in a lot of different places at once. I am very responsive to the conversation around mushrooms and how they relate to you know our changing climate, our climate crisis, and all of the other talking points around mushrooms. But I think that excitement will fade, and what I think is more timeless is to actually build a new science around the subject. I’m reluctant to be ‘the mushroom artist’. What excites me is putting myself into the science – not just making work about the science but actually doing the science, and finding new engagements with these cultivation practices.
SP: So where are your interests going, how are they developing?
SS: There are ways that I could answer that question and there’s another part of me that wants to say that I’m trying to create space to let the work take me where it needs to take me. There are so many question marks surrounding the native mushrooms that I’m working with and their applications to some of the problems facing the city that I’m living in. So I’m not sure if I have a good answer for that yet. I think that’s something I’m still figuring out.
SP: That’s fair enough! Maybe another way of approaching it is, what are the interesting aspects of your work, right now?
SS: Most of the work I’m doing, I try to keep it as simple as possible. Whenever I come into the lab with narratives of ‘what this mushroom needs to do’ and ‘how’ I want to use it, I often end up somewhere completely different, so I think being in a place where I can listen and just learn and see what these mushrooms do is really fruitful and exciting for me. When I started making these mushroom vessels in my studio in grad school, in a critique someone said ‘what makes these different from chia pets?’ And my response was that they’re not, really. I think it’s funny that ‘like a chia pet’ would be considered undesirable for artwork.
I love having these somewhat simple relationships between the materials that I’m using sculpturally and the mushrooms, and then we create the space where we kind of learn from each other and do these simple repetitive actions. In the way that the canvas frames the painting, these vessels frame the life cycle of these mushrooms and from those really simple gestures I’ve learned a lot. I would say that most of the focus now is just listening, and learning how to apply those findings in other places.
SP: Are you working with any other mycologists, practitioners, people in the local community? Is it a collaborative practice at this point?
SS: It’s a very small community, particularly in Los Angeles. Most mushroom lovers don’t end up in this Mediterranean desert climate of southern California, so I have my work cut out for me! There are other mycologists, and there is an attempt for all of us to get organised. I’m really inspired by the work of Danielle Stevenson, a friend of mine who is a leading voice in the field of myco-remediation and the cultivation of mycorrhizal fungi. I talk with people all the time but in many ways Los Angeles is very new to mycology, at least to cultivation. There aren’t a lot of people collecting native species and looking at the unique ecosystem that we have here.
SP: I can see how it’s a very open field where you are, because people don’t expect to find them in a desert environment. But having a lot to explore is exciting, because fungi are everywhere! Hopefully that expanse of potential discovery inspires people, across the board not just locally.
SS: One thing I would like to tease out is I think that we need to have a more open conversation around myco-materials. This is one of the initial reasons I started exploring mushrooms in my art practice is because most of twenties was spent covered in fiberglass and styrofoam beads and all these really wasteful materials that are sometimes necessary, sure, but they’re very expensive and they’re really hard on the body and they just make a mess – they blow out of dumpsters and they end up in the ocean. So when I learned that mushrooms could eat trash, and you could grow them out in virtually any scale or form or shape, that was really exciting and I’m still shocked that very few people have made that information available. I’m not quite there yet to share my findings and to make it open source, but I would like to put together something that will share ways that people can use these materials without having a mushroom lab. I think there’s an idea that you need this really high tech facility in order to fabricate with mushrooms but it’s actually very simple. There are people making mushroom leathers in all these state of the art facilities but there’s a lot you can do in your garage or in your art studio with the fungi that are already growing in your city, and I think that making that technology available to people is something that I would like to contribute to in the next 5-10 years.
“YOU CAN BE ONE OF THE FIRST TO DO ALL KINDS OF THINGS IN BIO-FABRICATION WITH MUSHROOMS, AND YOU DON’T HAVE TO HAVE A PHD TO FIGURE IT OUT”
SP: It’s been interesting watching the development of some of the bigger names in myco-materials over the past 10 years or so from both a consumer culture perspective, but also having been in the more obscure mushroom community where, as you’ve said it’s been a bit more countercultural and a little be more exclusive. But it is exciting. It’s getting a lot more people talking, but I think it would be really good if we could keep the emphasis on open source information and amateurism – that ‘anyone can learn’ spirit that has brought so many people into creative mycology.
SS: It’s difficult to convey how open the conversation is right now. I don’t have a traditional science background or education. I didn’t pass my chemistry class in high school. But I have collected every single book on mushrooms available. And people have this idea that there are teams of scientists around the world that are looking really closely at ways that mushrooms can remediate the land and build materials that we can use sustainable and cataloguing the native fungi in their community, and it’s just not the case. It might be going in that direction; we’re starting to see funding in the US for some of this work, but it is so incredibly small and you can still make such a huge impact with the means that are available to you.
I underestimated the work that I was doing. I thought oh I’m gonna learn enough about mushrooms from these experts to do some of these cool things in the studio.Within the first year I was starting to do things that – when I shared them with other more experienced mycologists, they were like ‘wow, I’ve never seen anybody do this that way’ or like ‘hey, using the glazed ceramic instead of plastic, that’s a really clever idea’ and you think like… what? Nobody has done this? This isn’t a crazy idea. I was just looking for something that can be hot and seal the moisture and keep out the dirty air. But it doesn’t seem to be documented anywhere apart from a couple of possible references in China and Japan.
So I was really encouraged that some of my spur of the moment ideas turned out to be new and exciting for people who have been doing this for a really long time. If I can do that, just thinking of putting mushrooms in ceramic, there’s a million more ideas that you can come up with. You can be one of the first to do all kinds of things in bio-fabrication with mushrooms, and you don’t have to have a PhD to figure it out.
Books that were published seven years ago already have information that really isn’t up to industry standards, and few of the experts that I talk to agree on how some of this stuff can be done, so I think we really get to enjoy this experimental moment where you can be really fast and loose and have this collaborative energy with with people around you. You’re gonna stumble on a miracle eventually, you know, most of this stuff hasn’t been tried.
SP: What’s the strangest cultivation experience you’ve had?
SS: Right before the pandemic I had a number of different projects going in the workspace, and then I was locked out because of Covid, and I thought that I had lost all these vessels. I wasn’t able to salvage things or work on them outside of my workspace so I just left them there. I didn’t have them in a fruiting container, they were just left out on tables, they were contaminated, some of them looked like they had suffocated themselves, and over three months they’d figured it out and produced these really strange fruiting bodies and they had all thrived. But yeah everyday is unpredictable. It’s a blessing and headache.
Sometimes I get really embarrassed. This is the problem of social media; we’re all sharing our highlights reel, but the reality is our lives are so much more messy and full of errors and problems, and it’s the same with the ‘mushroom’ social media profiles. I was seeing people just killing it with these mushroom farms; just walls of Wood Ear fungi and all of the things that I was trying to grow and I was just embarrassed that I was getting bacterial contamination and Trichoderma and other issues. Then in a consultation once, Danielle said ‘you know about the whole 15% rule right?’ and I was like, no, and she said ‘well you know 15% goes to spoilage’. At the highest level even, you lose 15%, it’s just out of your control. So I was like oh my god! I’m not totally embarrassing myself! Things happen. You can only control so many vectors.
“IT CAN BE A HEADACHE, ESPECIALLY WHEN SOMETHING GOES SOUTH AT THE VERY LAST MINUTE, BUT YOU LEARN TO TALK MUSHROOM”
SP: Probably a good rule for life too. You’re going to lose 15% to spoilage.
SS: Yeah! People who have been doing this for a lot longer have the same problems. And it ‘s the same with identification. People get into this and they think ‘I’m gonna learn all the mushrooms I see on my hikes’, and then you realise ‘there’s actually all these mushrooms on my hikes that are undescribed’. Or that are hotly debated on the forums, where nobody agrees on what the ‘true’ scientific name for them is.
SP: It can be really difficult and obscure, yeah. Especially in cities where you often can’t find usual habitat tells, or in less studied/forayed habitats like deserts. But there’s a lot of misconceptions around mushrooms too, and people are starting to use that, and the obscurity, to sell ideas that are… untrue. So it’s also important to have a good level of rigor.
SS: The mainstreamification of mushrooms comes with a lot of good things and it comes with a lot of grifters, people who want to sell things that aren’t what they say they are.
SP: That’s why I’m a big fan of blending the creative and the design, arts, etcetera into the technical discussion at the foundation because I think it gives people the sense that mushrooms can be something that can be in their life. Because most people are a lot more used to making room in their lives for art and design than they are to making room for science.
SS: There’s an abundance of interesting things to think about with mushrooms and sometimes it’s visual. We spend a lot of time focused on the mushrooms that will heal you, or the mushrooms that will get you high, or the mushrooms that will kill you, but that only represents a small slice of the spectrum of the you know four million five million fungi that we think are out there. And they’re all pretty interesting, and sometimes they’re interesting visually. I think that’s ok. I think that somehow it’s not considered a true virtue of mushrooms but we can learn a lot from just looking at them. And the little brown ones – not just the big red Amanitas, which are great, but it’s like if you’re discovering movies for the first time, ok you saw some of the most famous movies out there, but go watch some lesser known ones, go to the b-sides and you’ll find a whole lot there. And if it’s just visual then it’s just visual. Some people think that all mushrooms have to ‘do’ something, and they might, but it’s also great to just observe and just be listening.
“SOME PEOPLE THINK THAT ALL MUSHROOMS HAVE TO ‘DO’ SOMETHING, AND THEY MIGHT, BUT IT’S ALSO GREAT TO JUST OBSERVE AND JUST BE LISTENING”
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