At a time when businesses are shuttering all over the French Quarter, a macabre shop, filled with odd art and oddities and black walls, points toward a surprisingly bright and successful future.
Dark Matter Oddities and Artisan Collective opened the doors to their 822 Chartres Street storefront in the middle of the pandemic. Their timing may be strange but that isn’t a surprise, as all sorts of things about their business model and practices defy what you’d expect.
To begin with, co-owners Chrystal Lea Nause and Joshua Gates are both artists and partners, still in their 30s, who have been together for nearly two decades. I sat down with Chrystal to ask her how this unholy matrimony of art and romance and business came to be.
“When Josh and I met, way back in 2001, he was my main competition in juried art exhibitions. He started in Graphic Design, then changed his focus to a double degree in Metals and Glass,” she said. “My love was always the darkroom, so I pursued a Photography degree [coupled with] a Criminal Justice degree so that I could do civilian crime scene processing. I added on a master’s level course in Physical and Forensic Anthropology that would allow me to work as a specialist in human remains documentation, recovery and identification. That degree brought me all the way to Southern Italy, to work on a late Roman cemetery dig. I remain a certified skeletal analyst in the state of Illinois to this day.”
While art and excavating is an unusual mix, Chrystal is far from being the only scientific-minded artisan in the collective.
The Sleeping Sirens and Forgotten Boneyard preserve wet specimens and mummify sea creatures, as well as doing osteological processing, The Skeletorium focuses on skeletal articulation, insects and caged skulls, Etched in Embers specializes in pyrography and My My Butterfly and Faerie Things delicately preserve insects.
The objects in this shop are bizarre, beautiful and in-demand, but they don’t sell themselves, Chrystal explains.
“Being prolific with the artwork and effective in marketing rarely meshes.”
“Long before Josh and I started our brick and mortar, we did art markets,” she explained. “We wanted our pieces to sell but we didn’t know how to make that happen. At first, we were like, ‘This is what we’re selling. Like it or not. Take it or leave it.’ It was not the best sales technique — Taking care of the marketing and business side of the art is really, really hard. Learning how to talk about your own artwork never comes naturally. Being prolific with the artwork and effective in marketing rarely meshes. There are so many talented artists who have no skills in packaging themselves and artists who are skilled on the business side are often not prolific or make generic work.”
There is the feeling, when you enter the hallowed doors, that artists running a shop is a bit like inmates running an asylum, but with Dark Matter, that’s part of the draw. Doing travel shows and markets, taking meticulous notes, slowly growing a wide fan base across the U.S., choosing to work only with people they admire and enjoy and focusing on highlighting underrepresented artists who work in a variety of mediums with distinctively unique approaches is an absolutely backward business model but it works! It not only works, but it also creates harmony to the space and a complementary rather than competitive relationship amongst the collective.
“Weirdos tend to gravitate to one another.”
“We met all of our local artists (oil painter Eric Clay Dean, illustrator Trista Musco, stitch witch Curious Adornments, found-object artist Faerie Things and laser engraver Saynomore Studio) at various art markets around New Orleans; our non-local artists were met during traveling exhibitions, particularly the Oddities & Curiosities Expo. Weirdos tend to gravitate to one another.” Chrystal said, giggling behind her Nosferatu Face Mask. “We believe wholeheartedly in [our artists’] work, and in them as individuals. We adore our Merry Band of Misfit Makers! We also only support ethical, sustainable, and conscientious taxidermy work. Most of our taxidermists would fall under the ‘rogue taxidermy’ movement, ‘vulture culture’ (found animal remains), or utilize vintage mounts. We do not condone trophy killing.”
“It smells really good in here; It does not smell like dead animals.”
Apologies, as I buried the lead by not mentioning the full-size goats that grace the shop up until this moment. The place is filled with Bovidae, jewels, coffins, carvings, candles, shells, pins, paintings, postcards, creatures of all sorts, though as Chrystal assures us, “It smells really good in here; It does not smell like dead animals.”
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A list of objects that long may give you the impression that the store is disorganized and cluttered but on the contrary, everything is designed in a thoughtful, artful, user-friendly way. What struck me is that there are displays at every height possible. I asked her what led to that choice and her answer surprised me.
“When we structured the shop, we wanted everyone to feel welcome here, including those who have special mobility needs. When I worked at the SIU University Museum, I spent significant time in ‘Diversity and Equity,’ the department that handles ADA accessibility and training. These experiences made me more aware of the variety of access that should be considered with a physical storefront. We have a portable ramp that allows entrance up the step. The aisles are a minimum width of 40″ and some spaces are even wider than that. You may notice a tiny Victorian cast iron dollhouse chair and a full-sized turn-of-the-century caned wheelchair in our collection. We also display items literally from the floor to the ceiling. It makes our shop inclusive and more interesting (and interactive) for children.”
Another thing that Chrystal and Josh did efficiently and intelligently was the shift to online sales. They’re thriving on Instagram, Facebook and Etsy these days. They had already been active on the sites but shifted into high gear when the pandemic hit. Their reviews are five-star because they care about their customers the way they care about their artists.
I leave you with this wonderful story Chrystal told me about how the two of them recently came into possession of their shop goats:
“The most recent taxidermy acquisition was with a couple we know very well from the oddities touring shows,” she said. “We acquired our first pair of goats from them in Charlotte, in February, with the intention of meeting up with the couple in Dallas the next month for the next show. Then all hell broke loose, COVID happened and the world was canceled, so we’ve been trying hard to find a way to triangulate with them. They’ve been hand-delivering taxidermy across the Southern states, so, last weekend, we drove five and a half hours to a gas station in rural Mississippi, pulled our handicapped van right up to their dead things trailer, rolled the goats (which were on wheels) into our vehicle and drove away really quickly. We paid them in digital currency and boudin. (The boudin was really a ‘thank you’ for them driving all the way from rural Oklahoma to meet us.) I’m sure, for years to come, a handful of people will talk about the traumatizing time that they stopped at the Love’s gas station in Tupelo, Mississippi, and witnessed a casual exchange of goats and sausage.”