We live in the age of convenience, where even a cremation can be ordered online in a matter of a few minutes. As a result of this, many aspects of our daily lives have become intangible. We’ve lost the physical connection to our things, such as our clothes–which we no longer make ourselves–and our home decor– which we often buy at mega-stores, factory-made and devoid of any uniqueness.

“People are starting to get ready to say goodbye to Walmart and start shopping small more. Yes, something handcrafted is more expensive, but you know that it’s the product of hours and months and years of passion and effort.” –Nate McCall, master craftsman at McCall Co. Handcrafted Goods.

Fed up with the blandness that commodification almost always produces, artisans are turning to handcrafts and art forms that have been in existence for hundreds of years, art forms that encourage dark pieces bespoke. These are no pop-up overnight Etsy stores; these creators spend decades mastering an ancient craft and infusing it with their modern sensibilities. These are the new Old Masters.

Bookbinding

Alchemical Vade Mechum. Luxury hardcover leather journal by McCall Co. Handcrafted Goods.
Alchemical Vade Mechum. Luxury hardcover leather journal by McCall Co. Handcrafted Goods.

Books have been in existence since, arguably, the first century, and they were pieces of art in their own right. There was no alternative to making books by hand; as a result, books were rare and literacy was even rarer. Book covers were made out of leather: from goat, sheepskin, pigskin, or calf skin, fitted with clasps, and decorated with gold, their pages sewn together at the seam (1). A book bound by hand was, and still is, a remarkable piece of ornate craftsmanship.

“Once I really started to dedicate my time and efforts to mastering the craft in 2014, I realized how much I had to learn. I experimented a lot, made a lot of mistakes, learned a lot, got better, and started getting more creative with my books,” says Nate McCall, owner and craftsman at McCall Co. Handcrafted Goods. Nate says one of the hardest parts of mastering the bookbinding craft was learning gold tooling, but that mastering it was one of the best decisions he has made for himself as an artist. “I remember back when I was 15 or 16, on a school trip to Italy, we were in Florence, and we went to this old leather shop. I had bought a glasses case, and they had this guy there who would tool your initials in gold onto whatever you bought. I watched him do this, and I remember thinking that it was the coolest fucking thing I had ever seen.”

Nate specializes in making luxury hardcover leather journals, whose designs are often inspired by the occult (the Morning Star journal, for example, or the sold-out, raven masterpiece the Pursabók II). Nate also takes custom orders. You can view his collection of decadent journals here.

The sold-out Þursabók II.
The sold-out Þursabók II.

Printmaking

The print as a piece of art was “a medium that rose in status to rival painting as a respected art form during the Renaissance period,” which lasted from approximately the 14th to the 17th centuries (2). Many Renaissance prints were also inclined toward the occult, and explored themes such as the demonic. In Germany and the other Low Countries in the 16th Century, “the social, sexual, and demonic power of women was an important theme in the popular print” (Ibid).

Luna, Limited Edition Screenprint, by Poison Apple Printshop.
Luna, Limited Edition Screenprint, by Poison Apple Printshop.

“My interest in the dark, occult aesthetic and the study and utilization of printmaking are very much linked and lend themselves wholeheartedly to one another within the body of my work,” says Adrienne Rozzi, founder and artist at Poison Apple Printshop, a one-woman operation that specializes in embodying “a world of dark wonderment as enthralling as it is ominous” (3).  Adrienne was introduced to printmaking when she studied art history, which led her to find mesmerizing, “symbolistic images that conveyed occult knowledge… the secrets that were too dangerous to write in text.”

Most of the darker images I would come across were etchings, woodblock, and lithograph prints–that kind of engraved printmaking aesthetic was what made me try printmaking as soon as I had the opportunity. –Adrienne Rozzi

Adrienne’s art is wholly informed by her admiration of the occult and her own personal path in exploring and embracing witchcraft. The support she garnered from her family of artists when she first began as a printmaker encouraged her to keep honing her craft: “When I started to show my interest in witchcraft and occult through my drawings my family wasn’t put off by it but intrigued, and took the time to discuss the symbolism and grasp the themes so they could understand and relate to the art I was making. Seeing the study, thought, and time that went into my creative process, they pushed me to continue because they could see I was passionate about what I was creating.”

The Witch's Trinity screen print. By Adrienne Rozzi. Available via poisonappleprintshop.com.
The Witch’s Trinity screen print. By Adrienne Rozzi. Available via poisonappleprintshop.com.

To learn more about Adrienne’s screen printing process, and to view her gorgeous prints, visit her website.

Calligraphy

Calligraphy is an ancient art form that has been in existence since before the Roman empire. During the Italian Renaissance, from the 14th to 16th centuries, “Greek scribes began to go to Italy, and both scholars and scribes arrived in increasing numbers as the Turks pressed in around the Byzantine capital until it finally fell in 1453. They brought with them, naturally, the two styles of writing that had persisted throughout the history of [their] empire,” (4). These two styles encompassed a “liturgical” form of writing and a “mannered personal style.” Italians were influenced by the Greeks, and incorporated these styles into their own modes of calligraphy. This led to a myriad of calligraphy styles that emerged before, during, and after the Renaissance, including Rotunda, which was popular in the 15th century in Italy; Quadrate, which was popular in Germany; and epigraphic lettering, made popular by the Humanist movement (Ibid).

Cover for The Buried Giant. By Luca Barcelona.
Cover for the fantasy novel “The Buried Giant” by Kazuo Ishiguro. Art by Luca Barcellona.

Luca Barcellona is a calligraphy artist based in Milan, Italy.  His artistic goal is “to make the manual skill of the ancient art of writing coexist with the languages and instruments of the digital era” (5). He’s created pieces for authors, publishing houses, and clothing brands, including notables such as Dolce&Gabbana and Nike. His style can feel traditional and gothic, yet it’s also heavily influenced by graffiti art, which is reflected in some of his work.

On the more classic side of the calligraphy spectrum is Laura Hooper Leader, who specializes in wedding invitations, stationary, and prints through her business Laura Hooper Calligraphy. Her work has been published in “The Knot, Inside Weddings, Martha Stewart Weddings and Town & Country Weddings, among others” (6). If you’re looking for dark and elegant wedding invitations bespoke, Laura’s white calligraphy on black paper is a beautiful option.

Rogue Taxidermy

Traditional taxidermy as we think of it did not really begin until the early nineteenth century, though it has its roots in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, when “a crude form of taxidermy was developed when mounted and stuffed birds were used as decoys by falconers to lure birds of prey into their traps” (7). Traditional taxidermy has never been associated with an art movement. In the past, animal remains were treated with arsenic and stuffed with sawdust (which did little to enhance their physical structure). This stands in stark contrast to Rogue Taxidermy, which began as a fine art movement.

While some pieces of Rogue Taxidermy art can certainly echo traditional taxidermy (i.e., by using organic animal materials), Rogue Taxidermy art does not need to include actual animal remains. As such, Rogue Taxidermy “is not a subcategory of traditional taxidermy, nor does it have its roots in traditional taxidermy.” The true definition of Rogue Taxidermy is “a genre of pop-surrealist art characterized by mixed media sculptures containing conventional taxidermy related materials used in an unconventional manner” (Ibid).

"Mother's Little Helper Monkey" ©2005 by Sarina Brewer. "An auto-biographical piece that has appeared in 20+ publications."
“Mother’s Little Helper Monkey” ©2005 by Sarina Brewer. “An auto-biographical piece that has appeared in 20+ publications.”

“Artists working within the genre of Rogue Taxidermy create sculptures using all varieties of materials; glass, metal, paper, ceramics, stone, found objects, etc., but they combine these materials with elements borrowed from the world of conventional taxidermy,” says Sarina Brewer, an artist who practices Rogue Taxidermy. Sarina is credited with the conceptualization of the genre and she helped to spearhead the movement during its fine art origins in the early 2000s, alongside Robert Marbury and Scott Bibus.

As a child I spent most of my time outdoors interacting with nature. All animal companions, from sparrows to pet goldfish, were lavished with elaborate funerals upon their passing. The desire to venerate animals after death followed me into adulthood, eventually spilling over into my work while studying at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design in the early 1990s. –Sarina Brewer

Sarina comes from a long line of artists: her mother was a prolific fantasy art sculptor, who Sarina says was also her biggest influence and a source of support. However, her college professors at the Minneapolis College of Art and Design were not wholly receptive to her artwork: “My choice of mediums (animal remains) was unheard of at the time and was extraordinarily controversial for the day… My work was seen as dark, macabre, and something I was doing for shock value.” In fact, she was doing the exact opposite, venerating the animals she had cherished since childhood in an entirely new way: “What I create pays homage to the animal. The desire to have taxidermy around me can be likened to Victorian mourning art; jewelry and plaques that incorporated the hair of deceased love ones. It’s keeping part of something you cherish near to you. It’s having a tangible remembrance of someone (or something) you hold close to your heart.”

View more of Sarina’s incredibly unique pieces of commemoration on her Instagram and on her Facebook.

"Poseidon's Penchant" ©2015 by Sarina Brewer. Private collection of director/producer Guillermo del Toro Gómez.
“Poseidon’s Penchant” ©2015 by Sarina Brewer. Private collection of director/producer Guillermo del Toro Gómez.

Perfumery

Perfume has a history steeped in the ancient; it can be traced back to the Ancient Egyptians, Romans, Persians, and the Chinese. In Medieval Europe, the tradition of wearing perfume first began with the pomander, which was “a ball of scented materials, kept inside a lovely open case, and used to ward off infection and keep the air around you clean,” and which eventually evolved into the tradition of carrying “scented bags or sachets” (8). During the Italian Renaissance, artisans “discovered how to create aqua mirabilis, a clear substance made of 95 percent alcohol and imbued with strong scent,” which paved the way for the liquid perfume that we douse our skins with today (Ibid).

A smattering of gothic perfumes by BPAL. Photo via instagram.com/spookula.
A smattering of gothic perfumes by BPAL. Photo via Spookula on Instagram.

By utilizing our knowledge of homeopathy and aromatherapy, the conceptual theories of hermetic alchemy, and the aesthetic artistry of perfumery, we have mastered the art of encapsulating allegorical ideas into singular olfactory experiences. –Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab.

Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab (otherwise known as BPAL) is a modern perfumery that creates handcrafted scents, drawing inspiration from the “romance era, Renaissance, Medieval and Victorian formulas, pagan and mythological blends, and horror/Gothic-themed scents,” (9). Every deathling, darkling, and gothling will naturally be enamored by their variety of scents contained in deep amber colored bottles (chances are you’ve already been seduced, due to BPAL’s popularity).

Photo via whenyouawake.com.
A small collection of BPAL fragrances. Photo via whenyouawake.com.

With olfactory spells such as “Burial,” “Ode on Melancholy,” “Seraphim,” and “Qandisa,” among hundreds of others, you’ll be sure to find a scent that is unique to your own brand of darkness.


These arts and handcrafts serve to slow down time. Steeped in the rich traditions of centuries past, imbued with sacred meanings, and even transformed by new artistic movements, these art forms transport us back into an era where sundown meant complete and total darkness; when technology was cumbersome and inaccessible; and when people were known for their craft, or their trade, rather than their job title. These modern artisans have created dark and magnificent treasures not only for us to cherish in the ephemeral present, but also for those in the future, who might inherit the works that were created to withstand the short shelf life of modern culture.

Sources:

A special thanks to Nate McCall, Adrienne Rozzi, and Sarina Brewer for taking the time to share their crafts and art forms with me.

  1.  “A Short History of Bookbinding.” PowerPoint Presentation – A Short History of Bookbinding. Michigan State University., n.d. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.
  2. Nurse, Julia. “She-Devils, Harlots and Harridans in Northern Renaissance Prints.” HistoryToday. N.p., 7 July 1998. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.
  3. Rozzi, Adrienne. “About.” Poison Apple Printshop. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.
  4. “Calligraphy – Latin-alphabet Handwriting.” Encyclopedia Britannica Online. Encyclopedia Britannica, n.d. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.
  5. “Luca Barcellona, Calligraphy & Lettering Arts.” Luca Barcellona, Calligraphy & Lettering Arts. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.
  6. “Calligraphy.” Laura Hooper Calligraphy. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.
  7. Marbury, Robert. Taxidermy Art: A Rogue’s Guide to the Work, the Culture, and How to Do It Yourself. New York: Artisan, 2014. Print.
  8. Thorpe, JR. “The Strange History of Perfume.” Bustle. N.p., 31 July 2013. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.
  9. “Hubris – Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab.” Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab. N.p., 26 Mar. 2013. Web. 02 Feb. 2016.

Top image: Pieter Claesz. Still Life with a Skull and a Writing Quill, from the Metropolitan Museum of Art

Patricia Lundy

Patricia Lundy

Patricia Lundy is a death enthusiast and devourer of macabre literature. She is interested in the relationship between women and death, which heavily informs her speculative fiction.
Patricia Lundy
@IAmADracula yes! I need more gin. 🍸🍸 - 2 days ago