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Twisting around the world 

Just when you think its safe to avoid stepping into yet another precious patch of Doug Rhodehamel's paper-bag mushrooms, the month of May ushers in his international celebration of the spore. What has caught on so successfully on the artist's home turf, he has now invited the world to become a part of — to plant their own mushroom installations "to promote art education and creativity in day-to-day life," according to his one-sheet handout.

Already photo proof is arriving, even before the official May 1 launch of the Spore Project; then again, nothing is official in this grass-roots campaign. In one of the shots from Australia, curious kangaroos sniff around a crop, and it is not digitally manipulated. There's also an image of a solo specimen standing in a blanket of Alaskan snow, which came about because of a friendship with a Mexican contingent responsible for another colorful cultivation. Other shots have arrived from Taiwanese schoolchildren and a youth from Haiti. As word of the Spore Project goes viral, there's no telling what could happen.

"I didn't make calculations," says Rhodehamel. "I don't know what I can expect, but so far there are a few hundred people who have been completely all over it around the world."

Don't let Rhodehamel's aw-shucks attitude and understatements fool you. This guy's to-do planner ambitiously fills the future, just as his days are grounded in carrying out the enormous number of details to which he has committed himself for the here-and-now month-long mission.

He does have three personal goals for locations for a Spore Project, one of which has already been satisfied: To see them at the 2010 Winter Olympics. Thanks to a friend who lives in Vancouver, a group of her "artist friends got together and the next morning they were all over the venues," Rhodehamel says of his serendipity. He points to Olympic Park in the background of one of the photos of the plantings.

His unfulfilled wishes are hanging in varying stages of development. Letters to the White House have already opened doors to his desire for President Obama and his wife and children to design their own Spore Project victory garden. And Rhodehamel is determined to see his fungal artistry launched into space; he already can envision footage of an astronaut twisting one up in zero-gravity conditions.

"I don't know how that works," he says, acting deceptively ignorant. "I know they have bags up there. It should be easy to make some floaty mushrooms and take some pictures."

Of course, Rhodehamel realizes that there's a lot of red tape to go through to make that happen, but he's patient and confident the spores will get there. Today, he's content with his May experiment. But that doesn't prevent him from keeping his eye on the 20-year goal: "To have them planted on the moon."

The process to craft the paper sculptures looks so simple when he does it, but it has been perfected over 10 years of experience. And to think it all started on the banks of the drainage pond behind the former Orlando Weekly offices in Winter Park, where Rhodehamel worked on staff. Recently his dedication to the Orlando art scene and beyond led to a major coup: He scored a coveted artist studio at the historic Maitland Art Center. It's a validation by the board of his artistry and discipline, as well as a heavenly nod from late founder André Smith, who established the original experimental haven for creative types in 1937.

Updating the Spore Project website throughout the month will keep Rhodehamel and his cohorts busy posting photos of installations and messages. Still, as the momentum builds throughout May, he's going to milk it: Look for his tallest mushroom ever at the Snap! photography show downtown at the old Church Street Exchange building (May 20-23) and a collaboration with Voci Dance for an outdoor fairy fest at dusk on the last weekend of the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival (May 20-31)

"I am doing everything I can do — everything I could to get this going," Rhodehamel says. "It could go nowhere or everywhere, and I'm OK with that because I don't know what else I could have done," he says with shrug and a gleam in his eye.

How to play along

The Spore Project
May 1-31

Other than the official start date at the dawn of May, there are no rules in Doug Rhodehamel's grass-roots campaign, just general guidelines and an encouragement to have fun. He's not easily disappointed and acts as delighted as a kid with a new plaything when anyone wants to learn his game.

Find all the information needed on the Spore Project website, even videos on how to make them that require no spoken communication to understand the process. There's also a place to sign up to receive his e-mail blasts — a list that's up to about 1,000 right now, he says. That's how he networks with potential volunteers and participants for his many ongoing projects. Sometimes he puts out a call for materials (plastic bottles, video tapes, bedsheets); sometimes he needs warm hands to twist the bags for enormous installations.

The basic materials required to create a mushroom can be scrounged or recycled or improvised. They are: 1) bags to be hand-twisted into the classic shape, 2) sticks inserted into the bag to prop them up that also extend down to serve as the spike that eases into the ground and 3) rubber bands to fix the stick to the bag — otherwise, Rhodehamel says, the 'shrooms "bag out." In layman's terms that means it loses its shape.

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