Opening a new shop during a pandemic shutdown is a bold move, but this couple has found a ready audience as the French Quarter reopening unfolds.
- story by Reda Wigle
- photos by Ellis Anderson
Charles Baudelaire wrote, “The beautiful is always strange.” In the case of recently opened oddities shop Dark Matter, the strange reigns beautiful. Curated by husband and wife team Josh Gates and Chrystal Nause, the Chartres Street storefront is a thoughtful collection of unusual art and objects.
Chrystal defines an oddity as “anything that sparks interest that might be beyond the norm.” With a store brimming with taxidermy specimens, medical charts, funerary art and bone jewelry, the boundary of the norm continues to expand for the couple.
“Now that we’ve been collecting awhile, and especially since we opened, we get excited about stranger and stranger things,” admits Chrystal. “There is a lot of death in the space. Ours is heavy on the natural sciences, the medical and the esoteric, and a little bit of sideshow.”
A French Quarter location was non-negotiable for showcasing the strange. “We decided being in the French Quarter helped with visitor visibility because so many of them never leave the Quarter,” said Josh.
Dark Matter is housed in the historic Cucullu Row, the oldest intact section of row houses in the French Quarter. An unforeseen bonus of the location is that several ghost tours pass by the storefront daily.
“We had no idea about the tours. We Bob Ross-ed it! It was a happy accident,” said Chrystal.
While the ghost tours draw visitors into the shop, the couple reports their space is thus far free from specters. “In true New Orleans fashion, before we actually moved in, we gave it a good solid sage-ing and a little cedar wash. So far, so good.”
Dark Matter is the culmination of years of creating and collecting by Josh and Chrystal. The couple, who hail from Illinois, began scouring the woods for naturalist objects as children. Chrystal credits a teenage eBay purchase of a Coney Island freak show portrait for turning her on to curiosity collecting.
Partners in life and the shared fascination with death, Josh and Chrystal have a long and surprising history. “We met when we were kids. Josh’s parents and my grandparents went to the same church. We probably played in the same Bible class,” Chrystal said with a laugh. “We grew up in the Midwest; it makes for a wholesome meeting.”
The couple got reacquainted in their twenties when both were studying art at the same university. “He was my main competition,” remembers Chrystal.
In terms of artistry, Chrystal is an analog photographer and found object jewelry maker while Josh is a classically trained metalsmith, and in the most rock ’n’ roll job description ever, a bone processor. “I use copper plating over bones to fortify them for long term wear.”
Before opening Dark Matter, Josh and Chrystal spent years selling their own work at various markets throughout the city, most notably the Frenchmen Art Market. The market helped the pair build a community of local artisans, many of whom are now represented at Dark Matter.
“We opened as a way to sell our own work but also the work of other artists doing it themselves,” explained Josh. “Our inventory is half local, meaning specifically New Orleans and about half regional, meaning the Southeast."
"We have artists from Georgia, Florida, North Carolina and Texas,” said Chrystal.
In addition to selling in New Orleans-based markets, the pair has taken their wares on the road with the nationally touring Oddities and Curiosities show. The Oddities show is exactly how it seems from the outside: a bunch of weirdos traveling together to all of these cities from coast to coast, like an eccentric extended family.
The couple recruited said fellow traveling weirdos to create works for Dark Matter. “Some of them are artists we already collect from and we brought them into the store,” said Josh, citing Florida-based Forgotten Boneyard, manufacturer of the hauntingly beautiful wet specimen taxidermy sold at Dark Matter.
“We chose them because they care where their specimens come from. The sourcing is as ethical as I’ve found,” said Chrystal, who has a wet specimen baby pig from Forgotten Boneyard in her personal collection.
The couple, who live across the river in Old Algiers, share their home and respective studio spaces with three rescue pit bulls: Treasure, Nola and Wilhelmina, the latter of which Chrystal describes as a completely feral swamp dog coaxed back from the edge by Holly of Holly’s Rescue in Ponchatoula. “She’s acclimating to the house but is very much wild at heart.”
Unable to resist a step into the dark, I asked the couple if they had ever dabbled with the idea of taxidermizing one of their departed pets. “Josh has made jewelry for me out of one of my cats,” Chrystal said brightly, before admitting neither see themselves preserving any of the dogs.
“We have our previous dogs cremated, and I plan to eventually build them urns,” said Josh, whose experience crafting urns comes from his thesis work on European funerary practices.
His interests were a natural fit for the Crescent City. “In New Orleans so much is based around death, dying and funerals, as it is essentially a French city. One of the parts of my thesis was comparing the funerary practices of the United States with that of Europe, where they are more accepting of death and don’t seem to hide it. In Europe, artwork around churches and graveyards, death is on heavy display; reapers, crows, bones are all integrated into that work. In the US it’s almost a taboo.”
In a similar vein (or cavity, as it were), Chrystal holds a master’s degree in forensic archeology and anthropology — “I worked with dead people. Skeletal ones, not squishy ones.” She echoed Josh’s sentiments about the relationship between death and the city of New Orleans.
“I love that in this city they take the opportunity to celebrate the life that was able to be lived rather than mourning the loss. Everything is more on display in New Orleans than other places. The good, the bad and the ugly, we have it all and it’s for everyone to look at. But it’s not for everyone.”
For all of their scholarship around and draw towards death, I assumed the couple had no fear of the shedding of the mortal coil. “I’m actually afraid of death,” admitted Chrystal freely. “Me too,” chimed Josh. “I’ve been asthmatic my whole life, so death by drowning or suffocation terrifies me.”
For Chrystal, the fear is partly exorcised by art. “A lot of my photography work is about dealing with personal grief. I’ve gotten better at talking about death, and I’m not as scared as I used to be, but it’s still difficult for me to think and talk about, especially when that death is fresh or close.” She laughed about the paradox of fear and obsession. “Yeah, the kids that are obsessed with death are afraid of it. Maybe we’re obsessed with it because we’re still trying to understand why we’re scared of it.”
Unsurprisingly, Halloween — the season of fright — is especially hallowed for the couple. It marks not only their marriage anniversary and Josh’s first trip to New Orleans, but their busiest time of year for both online and in-person sales.
“Weirdos are always about oddities year-round, but then the slightly weird are more into it closer to Halloween,” explained Chrystal, whose favorite couple-costume to date is a dead priest/devil collaboration between her and Josh.
As far as personal celebrations, Chrystal predicted, “We’ll probably have a backyard bonfire where we can spread out with friends, get a little more old-school Halloween, burn things and drink absinthe.”
The couple has much to toast as they look back at an unpredictable year and forward to the future of Dark Matter.
“It’s been a strange year, even for two people in the business of strange, but stay tuned! We have so much more community outreach planned. As soon as we’re able, we’re going to hit the ground running with lectures and workshops and make it a space where people can connect with other weirdos.”
Weirdos: welcome to the place where the strange meets the beautiful, at 822 Chartres Street. Dark Matter is open Thursday through Monday from noon to six.
Find more stories on French Quarter Journal's home page, or check out our Hunkering Down blog.
Reda Wigle is a writer, editor and journalist who divides her time between the salt and grit of Key West and New Orleans. Her work has been published in travel anthologies and online platforms. Her profiles and astrology column, Barstool Astrology, appear regularly in the Key West Weekly and The French Quarter Journal. She holds an MA in Studio Art from the University of Colorado and an MFA in Creative Non-Fiction from the University of New Orleans. She is the winner of the 2020 Gulf Coast Association of Creative Writing Teachers’ first place Non-Fiction award. In 2020 she was awarded the Fredrick Barton Service Award for her work as associate editor of Bayou Magazine, a literary journal curated and published in New Orleans, La.
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