Mike Bennett's theme bank Wonderwood opens
Artist Mike Bennett has sold a lot of work. He estimates 10,000 of his $30 lawn signs asking drivers to slow down — the snail, the slug, the sloth, and six others — have popped up on Portland area lawns. Bennett made his name when he started posting plywood cutouts on his own Alberta Arts area lawn. The first ever was a snowman from "Calvin and Hobbes," but "The Simpsons" figures (notably Homer in the bushes) blew him up.
This extended into an animal alphabet (A was for Anglerfish) and an animal aquarium, in 2016. More recently he showed bigger works such as "Bioluminescent Beasts" during the Portland Winter Light Festival and a dinosaur-themed adventure called "Dinolandia" in the former Banana Republic downtown.
Bennett has been super busy this fall. When the See See Motor café in St Johns closed, friends convinced him to reopen it as a pirate themed coffee shop. Wonderwood Springs is stacked with real steamer trunks and ropes, and cutouts of cutlasses and trees. The Bennett touch extends to the psychedelic bathroom and the merch stand, which holds snail signs, mugs, buttons and swords.
In 2021 Bennett built a walk-through monster museum in the former Bank of America next door to the See See Motor coffee shop. The coffee shop's sales tripled during that time. "They reached out and asked if maybe I should consider taking over instead?" Bennett became responsible for the look and feel of the cafe, without having to clean cups or order beans. The tables are rough, heavy wood, made by Niall Nutter, with marks where Nutter played the knife game (stabbing the table, not the fingers) with a friend.
He has a 20-hour playlist of pirate music and sea shanties. Behind the bar is a shelf of things that "people may have traded for the magical coffee that comes from this place, there's all sorts of treasures up there," said Bennett. The website explains it better.
Bennett intends the coffee shop décor to evolve, so the large dragon may "wake up" and perhaps add a scarf for winter.
Rat King for the weekend
It's what's going on next door that excites him right now. In October 2022 he opened an immersive adventure space called Wonderwood: The Scourge of Castle Maplehold in the former bank. (The exterior has fake stained-glass windows, but the drive through is deactivated.)
"Every spring and fall it will kind of reopen with a new medieval story," he promised. "A kind of permanent museum."
The story for The Scourge of Castle Maplehold, he said, is "There's a new village that popped up in Wonderwood, and they tore down a forest. There's a tree wizard that lived there and he's very upset. So, you, as the adventurers, are invited in to help bring peace to the land."
Bennett says it's "like a walk-through haunted house with no scare actors." The cost is $8 suggested donation for adults, free for kids. He pays his friends to build and paint it, and to work in it. The only human actor is local professional clown Emily Newton, who freaks kids out playing the Rat King in a rat suit on weekends, demanding donations of trash.
"Weirdly I have gotten into a lot of live Dungeons and Dragons podcasts lately," he said of his new creative burst.
He's been inspired by The Adventure Zone podcast out of North Carolina. "It's three brothers and their dad. Their mother passed away, which is really sad, and they decided as a family that they should bond and play Dungeons and Dragons together. Over the course of two years, they played one story, and it became something that is so beyond magical, even just thinking about it I get a little emotional."
The Scourge of Castle Maplehold isn't that complicated, it's more like a story book. There's a goat hidden in every room.
"I love the improvisation of setting a scene and then letting your players create the story. The Rat King talks to people throughout the day, and she started to create her own lore and storyline for this character. And I'm open to that. It's a kind of loosey-goosey Dungeons and Dragons. You get to build your own story."
Bennett says his art influences are 1990s Nickelodeon and Cartoon Network, and "Calvin and Hobbes." When you walk in there are 1980s toys and video games which Bennett collects, although they are from before his time. A video explains the quest. For Maplehold he worked with a composer for the first time to keep the mood music on point, referencing Billy Kelly. "He's from my hometown in Pennsylvania, a Grammy nominated children's musician who always wanted to do a composition. I hired him for 'Dinolandia' and it was amazing."
For all his love of analog material (wood, rope) and predigital media (storybooks, shanties) he knows the power of social media. When his spontaneous cutout of Bernie Sanders in his mittens at Joe Biden's inauguration went viral, Bennett was stunned. "That was insane. That was on, like, gas station videos."
Bennett turned it into a T-shirt, pulling the screen prints in his garage, sold them and donated to non-profits.
"It was insane. It was thousands of shirts."
Naturally you exit Wonderwood: The Scourge of Castle Maplehold through the gift shop. There are lawn signs, board games, mugs and T-shirts. For Bennett, it all goes right back into the business. His studio is wherever he plugs in his jigsaw, his friends are his cast and crew, and he's his own boss. For artists it doesn't get much better than this.
Wonderwood: The Scourge of Castle Maplehold runs daily through Dec. 1, and then weekends, at 7410 N. Chicago Ave.
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