Sam Shoemaker And The Queen of Immortality

by Hayley Kats

reishi sculpture

Reishi (ganoderma lucidum aka lingzhi) is a polypore mushroom that has been used in traditional Eastern medicine for centuries. She has a myriad of health benefits and shows a lot of promise in clinical studies observing her immune boosting, hepatoprotecitive, anti-anxiety/anti-depressive, and even tumor-suppressive properties

Today we're cooling off with a nice refreshing glass of iced reishi tea with our friend, Sam Shoemaker, an interdisciplinary artist based in Los Angeles who *collaborates* with reishi to coax her into mysterious and beautiful sculptures. He also makes extractions with the fruit he grows. 

How did you get into growing mushrooms and specifically reishi?

All the polypores within the Ganoderma genus, including reishi, have complex personalities; they have so much to say. Some of the reishi in my lab are very shy, some are very shiny and want to ham it up; others are clumsy or picky eaters. I have to accommodate all their quirks. Two different “strains” of Ganoderma lucidum can have polar opposite personalities.

These mushrooms take several months to grow so it’s easy to observe tantrums and dances that occur when temperatures gradually shift in my lab. It’s harder for a lion’s mane or an oyster mushroom to speak to a human when the fruiting process is only 7-10 days long.


reishi sculpture


How do you get the mushrooms to grow in a certain direction?

Light, relative humidity, CO2 saturation, temperature and airflow change how the reishi behaves. Turning one of my grow vessels away from an LED light may cause a sudden change in direction. You can think of the reishi as a kind of camera obscura, recording small changes within its observable environment. If you move your LED lights 6 inches to the right, the mushrooms will record that. I don’t prune or interfere with the mushrooms much at all during the fruiting process. Each sculptural vessel I make is a bit like a performative “score” or a menu for the fungi to order from, but I try to take a back seat when the mushroom takes over. I say if the mushrooms are talking, don’t interrupt.

How have mushrooms changed your mind?

My therapist says spirituality is “the place where you surrender to something larger than yourself”. In that way my relationship to mushrooms is quite spiritual. They have taught me ways of surrendering control. It’s the same with foraging, you can’t control the weather or the season in the old growth forest. You have to slow down and closely observe relationships around you if you’re going to have a relationship with it. If you are stubborn you will be punished. In the lab, it’s nearly impossible to give the mushrooms a schedule and an itinerary. I’m not a surfer, but I imagine surfers have a similar relationship to the ocean

This cultivation work, especially with reishi, is quite slow. It goes against the breakneck pace of cultural production in the 21st century. I’ve had to turn down many art opportunities simply because each sculpture requires a minimum of 8 months of intensive care. My relationship with these mushrooms has helped me slow down my creative process. When I go to the studio, I’m forced to think in terms of months and years. It’s not a few hours of moving around shapes and colors in front of a canvas. These are slow and sensitive living organisms, everything can fall apart if you make abrupt changes.


mycelium lamps


What's the least predictable (or ~~most mysterious~~) species of Ganoderma you have worked with? 

Ryan Paul Gates of Terrestrial Fungi, a mycologist I admire deeply, shared with me a Ganoderma ravenelii slant from his private collection. This Ganoderma is the rarest Ganoderma in North America. It’s a very elusive and enigmatic strain he has developed for a long time. I’ve sworn my life to his exclusivity agreement to work with this one. I’m protecting this mushroom with a team of security experts and a dozen bodyguards.

How have mushrooms changed your mind?

In the lab, it’s nearly impossible to give the mushrooms a schedule and an itinerary. My relationship with these mushrooms has helped me slow down my creative process. When I go to the studio, I’m forced to think in terms of months and years. These are slow and sensitive living organisms, everything can fall apart if you make abrupt changes.

What are basic tools our readers could use to try to sculpt reishi on a budget?

You can do a tremendous amount of mycology lab work from home with a “still air box” (SAB) and a cheap 23 qt Presto pressure cooker. If you don’t have a large plastic tote you can convert into a SAB, you can run your oven on broil for 20 minutes and then do your lab work in your now-sterilized oven after it cools down. You can also go to any thrift store and find a HEPA air purifier for your clean work area. 

This past year I made lamps and sculptures with the middle and elementary school students at Pilgrim School (photo above). We used a cloned reishi that was growing less than a mile from my studio. We did everything right there in the art classroom with young students and materials collected from the 99 cent store. People I encounter ask me if you need a lab and a science degree to fabricate these materials with reishi, and you really don’t. If the 2nd grade and middle school students can produce these beautiful functional objects, anyone can.

Is there a good way to preserve fruiting sculptures?

It should not be surprising that the “mushroom of immortality” is very good at preserving itself. When the mushroom has stopped growing, get it dry and walk away. I will never use shellac or polyurethane seals on my mushrooms. Spraying a reishi with 100% alcohol will make it shiny, but I also try to avoid doing that. Intervention is unnecessary and it takes away from a genuine encounter with the mushroom.


reishi sculptures


Where can we see your work?

My solo exhibition More Permanent Than Snow is on view at Ochi in Los Angeles through August 27th. I also have work at Vielmetter Projects (Los Angeles) in a group exhibition that will be up until August 26th.

Are you working on any new/exciting projects currently?

My friend Lucia Ribisi and I are planning on launching a line of reishi massage foam rollers this year.

What do you hope to teach people about mushrooms?

There is still hardly any coordinated effort to put mycomaterial fabrication technology in the hands of students, artists, and amateur mycologists. These books and workshops are long overdue. I’m excited by the innovation happening with these materials on a large industrial scale, but I’d like to contribute more accessible resources for people who are starting to work with mycelium-as-material. Making practical materials from trash, dead plants, and living mycelium is what motivated me to work with fungi in the first place. I hosted my first mycomaterial workshop at Vielmetter gallery this past week, we inoculated a museum bench mold with almost 600 lbs of inoculated substrate. It was immensely satisfying to finally offer that. I’d like to do more in this area. These are resources that I wish were available to me when I got started. Rather than making my materials “more advanced” I’d like to make it simpler so people without mycology labs can participate. 

We are in an extremely early and creative moment with mycomaterial technology. We are just scratching the surface of what’s possible. There are so many examples of amateurs making significant contributions to mycology. We all stand to gain if we can put this in the hands of everyone who is even just curious about how these materials can be produced.

Do you ever make tinctures/drinks/food from the reishi you grow?

I make extractions with reishi fruits I grow myself. It’s a 3 month double extraction process. I use my own extracts everyday, and sell them on my website at

How does consuming reishi make you feel?

There are thousands of years of history, tradition, and research focused on the medicinal benefits of reishi. Particularly in Chinese herbalism. I actually live a very unhealthy life in Los Angeles. I like cheap beer, staying up late, and I’m addicted to stress. But my health is surprisingly very good. My doctor tells me I’m as strong as a horse. I never get sick. Maybe this is because I take reishi everyday, maybe I’m just lucky. I’m not a physician. I’m reluctant to make large sweeping statements about the medicinal benefits of mushrooms. I use medicinal mushrooms like multivitamins because of the long term benefits they provide. For me, the short term side effects of reishi are negligible and overstated by companies who want to sell you something. Broccoli is also very good for you. Consume reishi because it is good for you. Make decisions that are good for you.

Anything else we should know???

Love is the greatest power of all. Remember to drink plenty of water, greet all the dogs on the street, and try to be nice to yourself.