Custom Cranium, which opened downtown last summer, just might be the creepiest art gallery – and I mean that in the nicest possible way – in all of Eugene.
At the small retail shop you can buy skulls, bones and complete skeletons of just about anything imaginable, as well as very fanciful taxidermy.
The store, owned by Darien Baysinger and Adam Prawlocki, exists somewhere on a continuum between private natural history museum and Edward Gorey fantasy.
The two partners met in 2011, when Baysinger and Prawlocki were exhibiting, separately, at Spooky Empire, a horror convention in Orlando, Florida. As Prawlocki tells the story, the two, who didn’t know each other at the time, were utter misfits at a convention generally populated by “special effects artists and prop guys,” people whose idea of horror was more digital and virtual than biological and visceral.
Prawlocki had brought actual bones to the convention, meaning he was shunted off to a far corner of the exhibition hall – which is where he met Baysinger, banished to the same Siberia for similar reasons.
“I had these little skinned-out hands,” he says. “Well, they were the bones of coyote paws I had mounted. And Darien thought they were awesome. We hit it off.”
Cut ahead a couple years, and Baysinger decided to move to Eugene, from where she was living in Colorado, and turn her long-time bone obsession into a retail business. She rented space on Willamette Street downtown at the site of a former clothing store, whose former customers still sometimes walk in the door and receive a bit of a shock.
And she immediately called Prawlocki. “Do you want in on this?” she said.
They opened the shop in June.
Walk through the front door and you enter a world of dark biology, alternative taxidermy, salvaged bones and the smell of death. Nutria skins – tanned and very soft – hang on racks. Many, many skulls – coyotes, birds, deer, cattle, horses – line the walls. Some are decorated; most are simply stripped clean of flesh. A pet carrion crow – alive – guards the front door, while a pack of friendly dogs wanders the shop. A haunted black cat named Nihil speaks loudly to anyone who will listen.
A mounted skeleton from a Malabar giant squirrel stares down from one wall.
Bargain bins offer individual bobcat and badger ribs, $1 each, or handfuls of unsorted teeth.
At the back, human skulls and bones, in a glass display case, await the discerning collector.
Surrounding it all is the odor of death, which emanates from a terrarium at the front of the store. There, swarms of beetles strip the flesh from piles of bones, under a heat lamp.
“I’ve always been into bones and skulls from the time I was a kid,” says Baysinger. “Oh, look – here’s a pet I don’t have to clean up after! My parents encouraged the scientific aspect, and were pretty grossed out by everything else.”
Words tend to fail even Baysinger and Prawlocki when they’re asked to describe what it is they offer at Custom Cranium.
“This is a taxidermy- and natural-materials-based art gallery,” she says. “We offer scientific osteo-preparations of articulated skeletons.”
“One of our goals is to increase interest in natural history and bones,” Prawlocki explains. “And to let people come in and touch them.”
Their customers include sculptors, jewelers and other artists who use bones in their work, as well as New Age practitioners who come in for skulls, Pawlocki says. And then there are the families and kids, he goes on. “Kids love this store. And we love having them in here.”
Both partners talk about their dream of creating an “osteology museum” of bones here in Eugene, a place where anyone from university researchers to the general public could go in to look at – and touch – specimens of all kinds of skeletons, skulls and bones.
“You have to let people touch stuff,” Prawlocki says.
To her credit, Baysinger doesn’t flinch even a bit when I note the strong smell leaking from the terrariums by the front door. (It has to do with some splattered brain matter inside one of the tanks, she says.)
To counter, she offers a hilarious and involved story about a dead stingray she once picked up on a beach in Florida, thinking – wrongly – that it was fully mummified and safe to store in her motel room, where she stashed it while heading for dinner. On her return, she found people roaming the halls, trying to identify the source of an overpowering stench.
“Nothing smells as bad as something dead from the sea,” she laughs. “It had maggots in it! That was the worst experience of my dead-collecting life.”
She and Pawlocki will work on anything, they say, so long as it’s legal. (They insist they have good relations with state and federal wildlife officials, and don’t accept any specimens that aren’t legally permitted. And they don’t kill animals for art.)
Their work includes human specimens. Prawlocki is working on a Frankenstein interpretation of a human skull for a client; he’s extending the skull cap to give it more of a Boris Karloff flavor.
And Baysinger has a human foot in her freezer, flesh and all. The foot was surgically amputated from its owner, a friend, who injured it severely in a climbing accident. The man shipped his foot to her, along with a signed statement of ownership, so she can strip it to a skeleton and articulate and mount it for his home.
“All that was required,” she says, “was a very understanding doctor.”
1331 Willamette Street