Two years ago, Elvis Presley wasn't looking so good. He'd lost his head and grown a schlong where it shouldn't have been. Yet out of this heartbreak rose a dream gig for artist Carl Janes, a job that his boss has described as "the coolest on the planet."
The cocked-up Elvis started as a family friendly, life-sized Lite Brite piece created by Janes for a Folly Beach art show, but sometime after the event, vandals added a penis to The Pelvis. When Michael Shem-Tov, marketing director of Mellow Mushroom, talked about purchasing the original version for display at the King Street restaurant, Janes repaired it.
"This caught the attention of the big guys at Mellow Mushroom's headquarters in Atlanta," says Janes, a Folly resident, known in these parts as a visual artist, filmmaker, and Guerrilla Cuisine collaborator. "I had two other Lite Brite pieces at the time, and they purchased both."
Janes, who hadn't really sold anything before, knew he was onto something. He met with Marc Weinstein, one of the company founders, and discussed some ideas for different pieces.
Weinstein liked them so much that Janes has been sent on the road, visiting different cities to find artists who will add a unique spin to Mushroom décor in Texas, Arizona, and beyond.
"I seek out artists in the communities where Mellow Mushroom is going to," says Janes. "Then I pick a couple of people I think are appropriate to do art throughout the restaurant. It's extraordinary for me as an artist to be in that position — to go out and offer artists legitimate work."
Janes doesn't search for artists who can make cutesy pieces featuring anthropomorphic vegetables, pizza, and fungi; Mellow Mushroom wants artists to do their own thing. According to Janes, "This art isn't associated with the restaurant's established characters. They'll still be around."
Rory Skagen of Austin was chosen to create a huge three-part mural for his local branch. "Carl called us at our Blue Genie Art gallery," Skagen recalls. "I showed him some other types of work I'd done, and we decided to go with sea monsters laying waste to corporate skyscrapers."
He adds, "They're pretty far out for most businesses."
These Godzilla-sized beasties may be fierce enough to threaten an entire city, but they're not so monstrous that they'll put you off your pizza. "Carl seemed like a nice young guy, and I was pleased that he was so open-minded that he chose something so radical," Skagen says.
Although the 35-year-old Mushroom could be described as a "college restaurant" chain, most pizza places don't adorn their walls with giant scaly colossi or encourage artists to comment on "the state of world." But the strategy appears to be a sound one — create a buzz, draw a crowd, feed some faces.
While the work of Skagen and other artists has been up in Austin for a few months now, a similar project in Phoenix, Ariz., is still in the planning stages. Kenneth Richardson and Mike Goodwin use video, paintings, neon lights, and kinetic sculpture to thoroughly engage viewers in their art.
"We're currently trying to figure out the cost of things we'd have to buy, like video screens," Richardson says. "The materials and time are within our budget, but we're trying to get it down a bit, looking for local stuff to save shipping costs."
In many ways, this is the perfect antidote to all the Walmarted America sameness that's designed to make us feel safe and comfortable wherever we travel. And Janes just might be the right man to bring fine artists into local businesses, adding some mild social or political comment to our surroundings.
For Janes himself, the experience will continue to enrich his life and art. "I love getting to know other people's work," he says. "I've done a good bit of curating, and it does nothing but help the depth of my work."
As for Shem-Tov's comment that Janes has the coolest job on the planet, the artist says, "I couldn't disagree with him. I got lucky."