Elisa Low is a costume designer, seamstress, purveyor of geeky accessories, and leading authority on all things Geek Orthodox. She also sells her own quirky goods at her Etsy Store, Door Number 9, and has a shop at the relatively new Catholic goods marketplace, Peter’s Square.
How would you describe your products? Mainly geeky? Mainly Catholic?
I’m actually working on some that are kind of both. In my store right now, I have these bracelets that are a kind of Victorian, copper-and-wrought iron cuff bracelet with a cameo. I have one with a sepia-toned Doctor Who picture, sort of steampunk style.
With my Joan of Arc ring, my goal is for it to be something people can wear just because it’s their style, and not explicitly religious; but if their friends say, “That’s cool!” they can talk about it.
Another one in the same vein: a pendant with a small scale model of the labyrinth at Chartres.
On the surface, it looks like neopagan, new age jewelry, which is also big in geek culture. But it’s actually a very Catholic thing. It’s a kind of stealth Catholicism, that can appeal to anyone simply on its historical grounds, but it also has a religious meaning if someone chooses to look into it.
You refer to holy cards as a kind of “Catholic fan art.” Can you explain?
Today, there are all different versions of, say, superheros, in all different costumes: the dark and gritty version, the shiny reboot. Then there’s the humanized My Little Ponies, and there’s mashups, with heroes finding themselves in unusual situations.
So much of medieval and renaissance religious art is really what we would think of as fan art. You’ll see Mary, Joseph, and the angels and saints in period dress, in historically accurate dress, in unusual situations.
There will be a painting of the nativity, and all of a sudden you’ve got St. Benedict there. Patrons would get themselves painted into the picture. It’s fan art, with us in the scene.
Other than that, is there some connection between geek culture and Catholic culture? There seem to be so many people who are interested in both.
At places like ThinkGeek, people feel like they need a sonic screwdriver necklace, or Star Trek earrings. It’s the same thing as feeling like I’m a pilgrim, so I need this medal, this scapular, this patch on my cloak. Of course they’re different in what they’re actually referring to! But it’s the same as far as that human experience of how we use physical, tangible things to relate to stories, partly as signals to others, but also to ourselves.
But [putting together faith and geekdom] has helped me to see that sacramentals are not magic or superstition. They’re not going to imbue me with magical protections. In some ways, I wonder if that’s why some people have the opposite reaction, and have a problem with geek culture. Maybe they see it as demonic because they already see sacramentals as good magic, and so they see a geek culture “sacramental” as bad magic.
Do you have guidelines for yourself about where to draw the line?
With the Catholic saint wine charms, I had to think, “How do I envision this being used?” I figured they’re going to be used by people who are Catholic and who use them out of love — Steubenville grads, who can talk about their favorite saints while drinking, and that’s not disrespectful at all.
But if I can picture someone using or buying it in a mocking way, then I won’t do it. Someone wanted a St. Nicholas costume. That’s fine. But someone else wanted a priest costume with a Roman collar, and he said, “And I also need some bondage gear.” So I got someone else to help him, because it was specifically mocking, with malice.
Something I haven’t figure out how to do yet is geeky Catholic Christmas cards — nativity scenes, but geeky, like the TARDIS at a nativity scene. But whenever I do a mashup, my rule is that is has to be Fandom A plus Fandom B, but it has to be more than that. There has to be a new story or a new dynamic. It can’t just be: Now you have a TARDIS at a manger scene! That’s kind of pimping out the manger scene. If I can find a good and meaningful story behind it, then it’s not inherently disrespectful.
My personal opinion about Harry Potter? I have a friend who is a practicing pagan, who said that Harry Potter isn’t magic. Harry Potter is science fiction. Look at it: potions class is science experiments and chemical reactions. Real magic is about harnessing spiritual forces, and Harry Potter is about learning the rules. It’s just difference science rules, in a different universe.
One idea was that I was going to paint other people’s doors. It was a niche market, but I couldn’t ship them. That didn’t work well! Then I made crayon keepers that you could keep four to eight crayons in. They didn’t sell.
They’re normal-style bracelets you’d find at a store, but with a medal. They sold really well.
And the thing that was really successful were the cloth icon books.
I’m getting ready for Christmas, and will make as many as I can.
If you had endless time and resources, what would your dream product look like?
One thing I’ve been wanting to do is to figure out a way to make a pocket that you could add to any dress that doesn’t have one.
What’s the next big thing you’re working on?
I’m having replicas cast of Eliza Hamilton’s wedding ring. Her wedding ring is what’s called a gimmel ring, with two rings interlocking, one with her name engraved, one with his name, interlocked with a twist and a pin.
It’s really not going to replace your income. Think of it as a hobby, and if you’re lucky, it pays for itself and maybe a little bit more, at least to start with.
As far as figuring out your product, you have to figure out why someone would buy yours, instead of just buying one at the store. The thing that differentiates me is the quirkiness.
-It has to be somehow quirky or geeky or historically geeky, something that people in geek culture would like.
-It has to not come in different sizes. I will only do that as a custom order. I broke that rule for embellished backpacks, and they weren’t worth it to store and ship.
I often see you on social media brainstorming, or announcing a new product, fairly late at night. What’s your creative process like?
What sparks creativity is being open to my senses, just seeing and touching stuff. Sometimes I’ll just get out the fabric and start playing with it, or crayons and marker and paper, just start scribbling until something starts to take shape.
To enter the raffle for the hand-cast Joan of Arc replica ring, see part II here.