“I remember a tumbleweed blowing into my yard and thinking ‘Wow, what am I going to do with this?’ I put it on a shelf knowing it would eventually present itself.” Artist Owen Mortensen eventually picked that tumbleweed off the shelf of his studio in Northern Utah and from it—along with LED lights and dozens of similar tumbleweeds-—he crafted nature-inspired light fixtures. The ethereal pendants became a success, and many of them now hang in homes across the West as well as Yuta, The Lodge at Blue Sky’s signature restaurant in Wanship. 

Artist Owen Mortensen assembles a Tumbleweed Pendant in his northern Utah studio
Artist Owen Mortensen assembles a Tumbleweed Pendant in his northern Utah studio; Photo by Read McKendree

The pendants are fractal and alien in appearance, but the orb of spidering branches will feel familiar to those who make their homes in the West. They also call to anyone who longs to bring a piece of wilderness home with them. “Nature produces the most interesting shapes, colors and textures,” says Mortensen. “Going into nature does something to us. It rejuvenates, excites, sparks the imagination. By bringing nature inside, we’re able to experience it on a more intimate level.”

Mortensen pulls the inspiration and materials he uses to craft his pieces from the West’s still-wild landscapes and the natural world around us. Once the tumbleweed revealed what it needed to be—his 36-inch diameter tumbleweed pendant—Mortensen began driving around a 26-foot U-Haul to collect more tumbleweeds. Carried by the wind until they caught on fences and other obstacles, their forms craft the artist’s popular light fixtures. 

Tumbleweed Pendant assembled from 50 to 60 individual tumbleweeds
Each Tumbleweed Pendant is assembled from 50 to 60 individual tumbleweeds. Available at owenmortensen.com; Photo by Read McKendree

“I think the magic lies in looking at nature in slightly different ways,” Mortensen says.  “A single tumbleweed branch is neat, but when you start to see it in a functional way, it becomes an accent, a sculptural piece to enjoy.”

When Mortensen first discovered his love of transforming nature into art through function, he was studying architecture at Utah State University. His journey began with leaves, collected throughout the seasons from the same aspen grove, in an attempt to capture and immortalize the transience of nature. In the end, that temporary nature is also what drove him to source new materials for his work. “I really wanted to produce something that is longer lasting and more durable than leaves,” says Mortensen. “That’s when I started ‘branching out.’”

“In the West there’s a tradition of memorializing your experience with nature,” says Mortensen, touting the example of mounting a deer or elk head to commemorate a hunt. But Mortensen reached beyond taxidermy—beyond the expected—and found inspiration from the Old World. “I started looking into the European mount scene where they just use the skull and antlers but no fur.”

Deer Antler Accents are wrapped in stainless steel wire
Deer Antler Accents are wrapped in stainless steel wire. All antlers used in Mortensen’s art are sourced from natural sheds and are sustainably gathered; Photo by Read McKendree

Mortensen gravitated toward bison skulls, another icon of the West, gilding them in copper, gold or silver leafing, creating the unexpected by fusing the modern with the organic. One of his signature pieces is a set of nine bison skulls, hung in a Jackson Hole space. Each skull is gilded or stained in coordinated tones of gold, silver, charcoal black and bone white. 

Gilded, stained bison skulls sourced by Owen Mortensen from ranches in North Dakota and Colorado
Gilded, stained bison skulls. Mortensen sources his bison skulls from ranches in North Dakota and Colorado. Photo by Trevor Tondro

Mortensen considers each of his pieces a collaboration with nature. “Humans try to tame the wild wherever they are,” he says. “But, instead of taming it and bridling it, let’s go with the flow with nature and see what it has to provide, regardless of where we find ourselves.” Currently, he’s working on an innovative way to utilize antlers as lightning, not as ornaments like the antler chandeliers ever-abundant in mountain and farmhouse interiors, but functionally with the light emanating from the antler itself. As far as what will come after that for Mortensen, it may depend on what blows into his yard next.  


Subscribe to get Salt Lake magazine directly to your mailbox. This article was originally published in Utah Style & Design.