Moss children take root at Swedish Institute

A moss covered child feeding a moss covered bunny.
A moss covered child feeding a moss covered bunny stands on display at the Swedish American Institute. Crafted by artist Kim Simonsson, the exhibition opens on April 20.
Chris Juhn for MPR News

Strange children and animals are taking over the American Swedish Institute in Minneapolis for the next three months. They're the creations of Finnish artist Kim Simonsson.

"We have all been children, so we can all relate to that," said Simonsson, who's been making life-sized ceramic sculptures of children and animals for 15 years.

While his sculptures are lovely, they're also creepy. He's inspired by Scandinavian fairy tales, Japanese anime, books such as "Peter Pan" and "Lord of the Flies," and films like "The Shining" and "Alien." What at first appears to be an innocent image — a young girl feeding a rabbit — becomes slightly more sinister when you realize the rabbit has two heads.

"I've always done work that is a bit uneasy," Simonsson explained. "I try to make work that is somehow, for some people maybe, beautiful, but then also a little bit strange — not so explainable."

A sculpture that's part of an exhibition by artist Kim Simonsson.
A sculpture that's part of an exhibition by artist Kim Simonsson stands on display April 19, 2018.
Chris Juhn for MPR News

If you've never been to the American Swedish Institute, it's important to know that it is made up of two parts.

There's the historic Turnblad mansion, built in the early 1900s by Swedish newspaperman Swan Turnblad, with its stunning woodwork and elaborate decor. And then there's the Nelson Cultural Center, with its small art gallery, restaurant and gift shop, which was added in 2012.

Thirty-five of Kim Simonsson's life-size sculptures now inhabit both the gallery and the mansion. It's the biggest show of his works to date. Turn one corner and you'll find a girl jumping on the dining room table with an impish grin on her face, as an oversized platinum rabbit looks on. Turn another corner and you're in the kitchen, where a child has cut off the head of an animal that's part-swan, part-snake.

A few years ago, Simonsson started experimenting with "flock" — tiny nylon fibers that he applies to his sculptures electrostatically. He says flock adheres to paint like hair on skin.

"I bought many different colors of flock and nothing really worked. They all looked quite horrible in my mind," he said. "And then I had this black sculpture, and this horrible neon yellow flock, and I put this just for fun on the black sculpture. And it suddenly turned into this vibrant, greenish, mossy surface."

A moss covered child, crafted by Kim Simonsson.
A moss covered child, crafted by Kim Simonsson stands on display at the Swedish American Institute.
Chris Juhn for MPR News

Since then Simonsson has been working on creating what he calls "moss people," children with rough clothing and elaborate feather crowns who appear to be on a quest. One moss girl has an old boom-box radio strapped to her back. It's been hollowed out so she can use it as a bird cage.

In many instances, Simonsson has placed his creatures so as to draw attention to details in the mansion that visitors might have missed, or to create new narratives.

In the main hall, two of his child soldiers stand sentry by the grand fireplace. The children are dressed in animal skins. Look closely at the fireplace mantle, and you'll notice it's held up by a wooden carving of two men, also adorned in animal skins.

In the music room, a painting of the famed Swedish opera singer Jenny Lind hangs on the wall. Sitting slumped in a chair in the middle of the room is a green woman. Simonsson says that's also Jenny Lind.

"Jenny has fallen asleep on the chair for 120 years and moss starts to grow on her."

A moss covered child, crafted by Kim Simonsson stands on display.
A moss covered person, crafted by Kim Simonsson stands on display at the Swedish American Institute in preparation for a show as Simonsson is in the background (right) talking to MPR reporter Marianne Combs.
Chris Juhn for MPR News

"The Fantastical Worlds of Kim Simonsson" opens Friday night at the American Swedish Institute. It runs through July 15.

Correction (April 22, 2018): An earlier version of this story contained incorrect spellings of Kim Simonsson's name.

Your support matters.

You make MPR News possible. Individual donations are behind the clarity in coverage from our reporters across the state, stories that connect us, and conversations that provide perspectives. Help ensure MPR remains a resource that brings Minnesotans together.