THE DARK ARTS
FINDING MAGIC IN THE MACABRE. BY LISA MISCHIANTI. ILLUSTRATED BY KRIS CHAU
“And I was like, ‘I can’t even get through the skull with a bone saw,’” says Nicole Angemi, pausing to take a long swig of her milky iced latte. I steal a tentative glance over at the neighboring table—some rather loud, detailed morgue talk at Philadelphia’s trendy La Colombe café could conceivably be grounds for a complaint to the manager. It’s the kind of stuff that doesn’t usually come up during polite coffee date conversation, but for Angemi, a pathologist’s assistant and self-described “autopsy dork,” the subject matter flows from her matte pink lips freely and effusively, her brightly tattooed arms gesticulating excitedly with every scientific detail before she readjusts her black, thick-framed glasses with one talon-nailed finger. It’s this enthusiasm that led her to channel her workplace knowledge into a blog, I Heart Autopsy, and its accompanying Instagram account, @mrs_angemi—the contents of which, let me warn you, are not for the faint of heart, but have garnered her hundreds of thousands of followers (as well as plenty of critics offended by its graphic nature). Angemi is a character to be sure, but she’s not alone—hidden in plain sight (or perhaps where some would rather not peek) exists a burgeoning community of young women whose passion and work is steeped in what most would consider seriously macabre business. It’s a deeply interconnected group, in some respects even a movement. Welcome to the morbid girls club.
On the upper floor of the nearby medical and anatomical oddities mecca that is the Mütter Museum, volumes of leather-bound books rest on wooden shelves between thick, cascading curtains and old sconces, the walls covered in vintage portraiture. It’s a striking space, so much so that it has become a popular wedding venue for the alt-bride set. (Unsurprisingly, Angemi herself was married there, and has the institution’s telltale “ü” inked on her body.) Perched on plush furniture in the back room are staffers Evi Numen, Emily Snedden-Yates, and Meredith Sellers, waxing poetic on how one comes to find her calling among a plethora of diseased and deformed organs preserved in fluid, and some 3,000-plus human bones.
All three women come from a fine arts background with specialties ranging from sculpture and ceramics to photography to drawing and painting, but their personal interests in mortality and the corporeal seem to stem from equal parts nature and nurture. “I was the weird kid that looked through the encyclopedia under the ‘anatomy’ entry for hours,” reminisces Numen, who serves as the exhibits manager and designer, but will soon move on to pursue work as what she calls a “death midwife” (which I’m told is someone who facilitates a dignified end of life through compassion, comfort, and general help). Snedden-Yates, special assistant to the museum’s director, comes from a line of physicians, and thus was raised to be comfortable around the human body’s potential maladies, deformities, and ultimate fallibility. “[Growing up] I watched my dad perform surgery—I held a hip bone in my hand,” she recalls. For arts program coordinator Sellers (who also works as the programs assistant for the center for education and public outreach), death is something she came to know at a young age: “My father died of cancer when I was 14. I wonder sometimes if that has anything to do with why I’m here or why this stuff interests me. I’d like to think I’d be able to separate that, but....” She trails off.
These backstories are roughly mirrored by members of the all-female staff of the Morbid Anatomy Museum in Brooklyn, New York, a like-minded institution complete with a popular downstairs café and shop. While co-founder and creative director Joanna Ebenstein spent her childhood preserving dead insects and pet lizards in formaldehyde, museum manager and membership coordinator Cristina Preda had a somewhat different experience with mortality during her formative years. “I grew up with a very death-phobic mother,” she says, sitting in the museum library sporting jet-black hair and a tiny septum ring. “She was visited by a lot of tragedy in her life: Her mother died when she was 12, a sister died, a niece died young in an accident. So the topic, for me, was very mysterious and taboo and that made it all the more fascinating. When I found this place that not only showcased but celebrated that sort of thing, I gravitated right to it.” Laetitia Barbier nods in understanding, her red-pink mane brushing against her Wednesday Addams-style collared dress. A student at the Sorbonne interested in inherently death-centric religious art, she first contacted the Morbid Anatomy Museum in the hopes of accessing its book collection for her dissertation. In exchange, she started working there as the “nerdy French intern” and simply never left.
Divya Anantharaman’s mom was a biology teacher and likely responsible for her ease around innards and flesh. “I think the disconnect there became like, ‘Wait. You’re not doing it for science? You’re doing it for art?’” she says with a laugh when we meet in her home-slash-studio in Brooklyn’s Ditmas Park neighborhood. Anantharaman is a taxidermy artist who ethically and sustainably sources already-dead animals—think passed-away pets or stillborns from a critter’s litter—to create delicate, fantastical pieces. In her spare time, she teaches courses at the Morbid Anatomy Museum.
Anantharaman often works with her friend and fellow taxidermist Katie Innamorato, who also uses ethical/sustainable materials (the two have just written a book together to be released by W.W. Norton in October). “I wanted to be a veterinarian, but I realized that I can’t deal with the visual of live blood,” explains Innamorato. “I’ve been interested in skeletal articulations and cleaning bones for the longest time. So in high school, I started picking up roadkill and burying it in the backyard and, like, digging it back up later.” Any parental objections to this unusual take on teenage angst? “Well, they were kind of like, ‘This is gross and weird,’ then they were also like, ‘But you’ve always just been weird,’” she says, her pierced lip curling into a knowing smile.
Society loves to police what is normative and “ladylike,” and a fascination with death hardly qualifies. But in these girls’ world, normal is all relative.
Sometimes it means casually eating your lunch next to a dismembered body part on a busy afternoon. “When I worked at a city hospital, we would go downstairs to look at the organs after they were washed, and there were lots of times where I just brought my sandwich,” recalls Angemi with a laugh. Or maybe it’s going home afterward and unwinding with a few tokes and some heavy medical blogging: “It’s really funny because my friends will text me and I’ll say, ‘Oh, I just smoked a lot of weed,’ then they’ll be like, ‘And you just posted all of that?!’” she declares proudly.
In other cases, a regular morning might be spent scoping out leads on a passed-away pigeon. “Most of the birds I get are from people who raise them as pets or who have aviaries,” explains Anantharaman of her sourcing. “For example, there’ll be a guy that’s a pigeon fanatic and has a bazillion of them—fancy ones with big tails or ones that have crazy feathers on their feet. But when they get old and die or if there’s one that’s sick and has to be put down, instead of just disposing of them, I’ll buy them from him.” (If you’re wondering where these specimens are stored before the art-making commences, let’s just say you won’t find ice cream in the basement freezer.)
These ladies won’t even bat an eye at sharing their workspace with some unlikely company. “I once walked into Evi’s office and there was this big cardboard box of dirt just sitting there. I was like, ‘What is this?’” recalls Sellers. “And Evi goes, ‘Oh, just some bones—they were found in the plumbing in 1980,’ and I was like, ‘Um...oh.’” Both begin to giggle. “I came back later and said, ‘I have this idea, can I have that box of bones?’” Numen swiftly interjects: “And I was like, ‘Wait, let me pick my favorite one first!’” They explode into a riot of laughter. “Death and illness and pathology—these things kind of provoke gallows humor,” adds Numen. “You’ll find in people that work directly with the dead there is also a quirkiness. And there is definitely a strong sense of delight at the unusual. Finally, there is less judgment than you would find in other places. I’m always reminded that I live in a little bubble here.”
Yates smiles in agreement. “I once installed an exhibit on shrunken heads. I remember handling them throughout the day, and then in the evening finding a very long, black hair on my shirt. That’s among the few times I’ve been kind of shocked into my own reality here,” she says. “But they do have silky hair. They’re beautiful.” Numen concurs, “They really are.”
As much as some people would like to believe that these women and their interests are “other,” their community will tell you that’s rather deluded thinking. “Let’s start with the idea that everyone is preoccupied with death all the time, whether they admit it or not,” asserts Caitlin Doughty over the phone from her home in Los Angeles. “Everything that we do is driven by the fear of our own death or the fact that we’re going to die. And so the way to be a more self-aware person and a better citizen of the earth is to acknowledge that this preoccupation with death is there.” In the death-positive community, and even in mainstream pop culture, Doughty hardly needs an introduction. YouTube star of the famed series “Ask a Mortician,” author of two books (one forthcoming in fall 2017), owner of an alternative funeral business, and founder of the collective Order of the Good Death, she is among the foremost authorities in her field. And to her, it’s very clear that our society is death-repressed, all the way down to the shows we binge-watch. “It’s evident in our media, in the way that we fetishize zombies, for instance,” she says. “Zombies are just decaying corpses. They’re not vampires, they can’t transform into other things, they can’t fly, they can’t shoot poison. The fact that we have that much fear around just the decaying body, which is the natural process of death, [says something].” Like any long-term self-deception, she insists this isn’t healthy. “You know, it’s similar to what can happen when people deny fundamental parts of their sexuality or gender. Things get weird when you’re forced by your culture to reject fundamental truths about yourself.” She’d even go as far as to suggest this “death-denying culture” has major political ramifications. “There’s a great article about something called ‘terror management theory.’ It’s the idea that the fear of mortality makes us double down on our prejudices and that is pouring out all over the world right now,” says Doughty. “Our fear that there’s only so much life to go around, only so much existence and peace and happiness, is just our fear of mortality at work.”
Ebenstein agrees: “My whole life I was called ‘morbid.’ And then I started to really look at history and art and think, ‘Well, OK, we’re living in the only time I’ve ever seen where people don’t have a sophisticated discourse or an artistic practice or a philosophical [approach to death],’ probably because we’re the first ‘post-religious’ culture. I think this is a weird social experiment and I don’t think it’s very successful. In my opinion, it’s a morbid thing to pretend that death doesn’t exist.”
French-born Barbier is quick to note that in some sense, this profoundly problematic relationship with death is a more American phenomenon. “You go to a church in Paris and you’ll see a mummified saint. Les Jardin des Plantes is a universal exhibition with building after building of osteology collections and taxidermy,” she says. “And for the longest time you had at least two or three medical museums, if not open to the public all the time then accessible by appointment. That material culture is everywhere—you don’t even have to look for it.”
But perhaps Angemi puts the paradox of our society’s attitude most bluntly: “People are intrigued by death and by sex. They’re like, ‘Oh, I don’t wanna look, but I kind of wanna look,’ you know what I mean?”
Back at the Mütter Museum, the girls are sharing their favorite pieces in the collection with a hushed excitement. Numen whisks me over to the prized skeleton of Harry Eastlack, who had fibrodysplasia ossificans progressiva, a disorder that causes muscle and connective tissue to become ossified or gradually replaced by bone. Of all the many pieces, I ask her why she’s chosen this. “Well, we know that he liked movies—little things like that about his life. His sister visited his skeleton in the museum. I also feel a lot of sympathy for what he went through, and I find the actual skeleton gorgeous. I’ve had the opportunity to photograph him extensively so I got to see every nook and cranny. He’s very fragile,” she says tenderly. And in that moment it becomes overwhelmingly clear: While this kind of work might seem clinical and unfeeling, it is in fact the very opposite. These women do what they do because they have an incredibly full and nuanced appreciation of life, of humanity, and of everything that it encompasses.
“One of the things that is very bizarre to me is the idea that what’s inside your body is gross, whereas what you can see is fine. We all have these organs—hopefully we don’t have the pathologies that are shown in the museum, but we all could have them. And every time that I hear someone say, ‘Oh, this skull is so creepy,’ I say, ‘You have one, too,’” Numen continues. “I think it should inspire reverence in people, such a collection saying, ‘Look, this is a huge variety of shapes and sizes and pathologies and backgrounds and things that we consider deformities, and yet this whole variety is part of the human experience.’” Maybe it was hunger pains coming on after opting out of lunch in anticipation of some quality time with medical oddities, but I think I feel a sudden wave of aching enlightenment.
To listen to these women talk about ostensibly grotesque forms is also to hear an honest-to-God belief in their beauty. “I remember Emily taking me into this weird mobile storage unit and pulling open this drawer that was hidden away behind lock and key and saying, ‘This is one of my favorite things in the collection,’” recalls Sellers of her early days on the job. “It was [a stash] of these tiny bell jars and each had the very inner part of the human ear in them. They looked like seashells or something—just otherworldly and so beautiful.” They’re careful not to aestheticize the subject, as they’re very sensitive to that pitfall. “I do sometimes worry some people are just interested in this sort of 19th-century steampunk aesthetic and they’re not thinking about the specimens as things that came from real human beings with very human suffering,” says Sellers. But it’s clear that the way she thinks about the museum’s contents is no such fetish. It’s authentic awe.
In the same vein (pun unavoidable), at the core of it, the taxidermy girls in Ditmas Park simply respect wildlife far too much to let it rot once dead. “A lot of the animals we use become more appreciated,” notes Anantharaman. “Like, a bird that is normally seen as a pest is brought into a home and treated with love. Instead of just being thrown out like a piece of trash, it’s remembered.”
And their relationship with the critters in their work is deeply personal. “I do tiny stuff, like squirrels,” says Anantharaman. “I’ve always lived in the big city so I just identified more with these little animals. And I think they’re cool, too; they’re underrated, underappreciated, and they’re just, like, tenacious. You have to admire something that will live off a rusty old pizza slice!”
“I like medium mammals: fox, coyote, raccoon—animals that most people see as a nuisance,” offers Innamorato. “I’m fascinated by the whole cycle between life and decay and decomposition. And also just studying a relationship with animals. I tend to anthropomorphize my pets a lot—like, I call my cat my ‘cat-husband’ and we watch Golden Girls. I think it’s easier to relate to an animal, I guess.” She lifts up her sleeve to reveal a tattoo: It’s a huge portrait of her cat framed in wildflowers and text that reads, “Thank you for being a friend,” a lyric from the Golden Girls theme song.
Ultimately, why this world has become something of a girls club is up for debate. (“Of course there are men, too, but it’s interesting, we almost have to find ‘token men,’” jokes Doughty.) The cause could be rooted in women’s historical roles as caretakers of the body. Maybe it has to do with the duality of our empathy and our toughness. In the end it doesn’t really matter why women abound in what many would call macabre fields, but it does matter that they do. “Traditionally when you think of who is the person that gets to talk about death, it’s the old white guy, right? Well, that old white guy doesn’t necessarily serve everyone and doesn’t necessarily make everyone feel comfortable and welcome,” Doughty adds.
So go ahead and get a little morbid. “Pursue whatever you think is interesting—it doesn’t matter if somebody else thinks that it’s gross,” Sellers concludes unabashedly. “Girls should always follow their weird.”