excludeThe Call of the Mushroom

The Call of the Mushroom

Meet a ceramicist inspired by fungi. 

Sage Morgan is an explorer—of mediums, of clay, and of mushroom habitats. “Even squatting down to go pee in the woods, you’re going to find mushrooms,” Morgan (she/they) said. “You just never know what you’re going to find out here, and I think that’s the adventure.” Whether it’s throwing a series of large planters on her wheel or examining a species of fungi she’s never seen before, the ceramicist is drawn to the way line functions in nature and in art. 

sketches
Morgan starts with sketches before adding them to the pottery. Photo courtesy of the artist 

Morgan started working with clay in high school when they signed up for a ceramics class to fill out their schedule. A self-described “drawing kid” in school, it was a completely new form of art.

“When you started a school project and needed someone to draw a poster, everyone would look at me,” they said. “So it was an incredible challenge going from 2D to 3D. But I fell in love with that challenge.” While Morgan says high school was a rough time for them, clay was the great mediator. “I loved waking up and thinking about going to throw on the wheel,” they said.

It wasn’t until she got to college that Morgan began adding drawings to her pots, starting with simple outlines and moving into incredibly detailed and layered pieces. Her fascination with mushrooms and slugs, which make up the bulk of her work today, started at an early age playing video games and reading fantasy books. Playing Morrowind, one of the Elder Scrolls games, she remembers walking around in towering mushroom forests. “It’s the most mind-exploding thing as a 10-year-old,” Morgan said. “Morrowind was a great place for me to explore because I was too anxious to do that in person as a kid.”

When they moved from Florida to Green Mountain, N.C., Morgan discovered many of these landscapes they explored as a kid online were now accessible right in their backyard. As they spent more time on the trails in the salamander capital of the world, they began to see the true depth a mushroom can bring to a piece. “The more I interacted with them in the wild, you see there’s incredible detail here on every single one,” Morgan said. “You notice how line is ever so present in all these mushrooms in such a similar way.”

The Technique 

Morgan primarily works with porcelain clay, a delicate and unforgiving material that can have the tendency to collapse and warp if not manipulated with some sense of care. “Some people describe it as throwing with butter,” Morgan said. The difficulty lies in the handling of the clay. The more you move it, the softer it gets. “The more you mess with it, the more it’s like, ‘Oh, you’ve touched me enough. We’re going to throw a fit.’ So usually when I’m throwing on the wheel, I work quite fast,” she said. 

Once they have a dried piece of pottery that hasn’t been fired yet, Morgan will burnish and carve out a design. All of the imagery on their pottery is done in freehand, although they’ll do a sketch ahead of time to reference throughout the process. 

When it comes to her work, you’ll find a variety of shapes and sizes, from cups and mugs and bowls to the occasional plate. While Morgan loves throwing big planters and the daunting nature of filling in all that blank space, nothing beats pulling a tiny vase from the kiln. “It’s just the most precious little thing you hold in your hands,” she said. Watching time-lapse videos on her Instagram, you can see the mesmerizing way Morgan works the clay up and into the form she wants with dexterity and patience, no matter the size of the piece. 

Morgan finds inspiration on regular hikes in the mountains of North Carolina. Photos courtesy of the artist

Nature Is Art

While their love for mushrooms might have started in fantasy, Morgan is regularly on the hunt for new sightings around the mountains of North Carolina. “If you want to see mushrooms in their prime out here, you’ve got to go when it’s cloudy and raining,” they said. “The views will speak for themselves too because nothing beats rolling clouds through Appalachia.” One of Morgan’s favorite places to catch a glimpse of these fungi is Crabtree Falls, about 30 minutes from her house. “I always look for a place near a river because of that dampness,” they said. “You’re almost guaranteed a lot of moist spots because of the waterfall.” Morgan is so excited about the mushrooms that they’ll regularly speed past views of the falls to look for new growths. 

Hiking is also a time Morgan takes to simply be present and aware of her surroundings. “I usually go by myself so it is just a breathing time for me,” she said. “And it is incredibly mindful to be out in the silence of nature looking for things. That’s a true joy for me.”

Morgan’s other love and frequent motif in her work, slugs, also thrive in these damp environments. “They’re slow as heck,” she said. “They grow at their own pace. I really admire that because I’m not wanting to rush. I spend 48 hours on one planter for pete’s sake. It’s okay to go slow.” These little decomposers also play an important role in local ecosystems, helping to break down dead organic matter into fertilizer that contributes to healthy soil.

Although they’re still in a relatively early part of their career, Morgan’s love for the more mystical elements of nature and skill with clay comes through in their work and the process they share with audiences online. 

You can find more of Morgan’s work on Instagram @grumpydwarfpottery.

Places to Go, Things to See: