For Owen Mortensen, Nature is His Muse
Portrait by Austen Diamond; All other photos by Owen Mortensen
At the foot of the Bear River Mountains in Logan, Utah, artist Owen Mortensen’s 1,200-square-foot studio brims with objects native to his vast valley surroundings: bison skulls, shed elk antlers, tumbleweeds, slabs of recycled wood. With nature as his muse, Mortensen uses metallic gilding, paint and stainless-steel accents to repurpose these materials into updated (and sometimes functional) art, while maintaining each piece’s inherent, simple beauty.
Mountain Living: When did you become interested in the arts?
Owen Mortensen: At an early age—my mom put us in summer art camps and signed us up for ceramic classes every year. But it didn’t dawn on me that I could be an artist until my college days. I was studying architecture at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City and making collages of pressed leaves and flowers on the side. Architecture wasn’t really jibing; I realized I enjoyed working with my hands and being more analog and free-flowing. So I dropped out of school and decided to start showing my work at art festivals.
One of Mortensen’s most popular pieces, gilded moose antlers add texture and shine to a mantel.
ML: How would you describe the genre of your work?
OM: I call it “organic modernism” because it’s taking something really textural and organic and then applying it, hanging it or treating it in a more modern way.
Walnut cutting boards with gilded edges.
Deer antlers adorned with steel wire wraps, a technique Mortensen says “combines organic with man-made.”
ML: Where do you find the materials you work with?
OM: A lot of foraging. As I’m out and about, either hiking, driving or traveling through the Midwestern states, I’ll see things and pick them up. Essentially, I’m like a natural hoarder; I can’t throw some of these things away. Some of the tumbleweeds I’ve used have just blown into my yard. Sometimes I find antler sheds when I’m out, but I mostly get them from shed hunters.
Artist Owen Mortensen uses real tumbleweeds found in the Midwest to craft his one-of-a-kind pendants. “There’s this underlying unpredictability and originality to everything nature creates, so each piece will have its own personality and uniqueness,” he says. A long-lasting, low-heat LED filament bulb provides ambient light and prevents the tumbleweed from catching fire.
ML: How do your creations embody the West?
OM: There’s a vastness to the West that you don’t experience in other parts of our country. I grew up in rural Utah, and being so close to the mountains and the land gave me the opportunity to get into nature and really appreciate it. I never really grew out of that stage; I’m fascinated with the details of nature, and I use materials that are iconic to the West: bison, elk and deer skulls and antlers, aspen trees and even tumbleweeds. I’ve always thought, “Why interpret what nature has provided when you can actually use nature as the design medium?”
The artist coats a bison skull in black paint.
ML: What attracted you to functional art?
OM: It’s more accessible for people. Typically, artwork is something you hang on the wall just to look at—it’s almost taboo to touch it. Functional artwork is more accessible psychologically and financially. You know you need a table or something to provide light, so why not have it be something you really enjoy? It’s a more intimate way to enjoy design and art. owenmortensen.com
This low-slung coffee table (and all of Mortensen’s woodworks) was crafted in collaboration with Heirloom, a Utah company that recycles wood that would otherwise be discarded.
OFF THE CUFF:
“Recently I’ve been enjoying old blues albums like Mississippi John Hurt for contemplative tasks, or Milky Chance for times when I really need to get stuff done.”
“I’ve been fly-fishing since I was 11. I once caught a 40-inch silver salmon in Alaska. Needless to say, it changed my fishing life.”
“My wife Ashlie and I have five kids, ranging from 3 to 16 years old. I definitely have some budding interior designers and artists in the pipeline.”
“Andy Goldsworthy, who does these amazing natural sculptures. I‘ve never met him, but I consider him a kindred spirit.”