“You say hunting morels, not gathering,” emphasizes Luke Severson when explaining how to find the elusive mushrooms. “If you’re not looking for them, you don’t see them. But if you see one, it opens up and you see 20.”
That aspect of the hunt inspired the 32-year-old artist to make small morel mushroom sculptures—each one between three and four inches tall—and hide them in places people tend to overlook, such as next to piles of rusty metal, on ledges, or even in people’s gardens. They’re unexpected little gifts of art, ones that take you by surprise with their whimsical,
In a way, that notion of seeking and surprise applies to all Severson’s work. Before studying art as an undergraduate at the University of Northern Iowa, he was a philosophy major. “I was pretty much done with my degree, but by my junior year I knew I needed to make things and be a creator.”
So he took classes in the industrial tech department, where he learned metal casting by making test pours for companies such as John Deere before migrating to the art department. “I immediately gravitated toward metal and sculpture,” he says.
Casting in metal, however, proved expensive, so when Severson went to Kansas State University to earn his MFA, he was happy to discover that working with clay provided greater artistic freedom. “I had never touched clay before,” he recounts, “and I went from between $500 to $700 for a casting to clay. Nothing was precious anymore, and I didn’t have the reverence for the material. I figured out how to control clay, but I also gave up a little bit of control and let the clay do what it wanted to do. It freed me up to experiment.”
But Severson didn’t just stick to experimenting with clay. He also works with aluminum and plaster, among other materials, which indicates his ability to create a wide body of work as well as his more practical approach. “If I want to make something, I want to figure out the best way,” he adds.
For example, he uses porcelain to create his perfectly smooth, vibrantly colored, futuristic busts, which stand in direct opposition to his earthy, puckered morels. “The busts are blank. They’re half mannequin, half Hall of Fame, and sexually ambiguous,” he explains. “They obviously denote something, but they’re completely without information—but you know they have status.”
That status is not so ambiguous when it comes to purchasing Severson’s work. He has a line of ceramic cups and vases at Hutch, a high-end furniture store in Midtown Crossing that specializes in mid-century and vintage finds.
And like the rest of his work, each sculptural piece is unique. “If you line up my pieces, you’ll see some continuity, but not if you see one piece to the next,” says Severson. “It says a lot about how I approach projects and completing different work.”