Geeky Sacramentals: Elisa Low, Joan of Arc, Katniss . . . and a giveaway

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.

Low, 34, is married and has four kids, ages five to twelve. She was born and raised Roman Catholic, and is discerning whether to join the Byzantine Catholic Church. Low majored in art at University of Dallas, and now works at a Texas costume shop, where she repairs costumes, restores vintage clothing, and designs and crafts costumes from scratch.
She spared a few minutes from her exceedingly busy day to chat with me about her work, her creative process, and her thoughts on how faith and fandom can exist in peace together.
This interview with Low is part I. Part II, which you can see here, is a raffle for one of her newest products: a gorgeously heavy, sterling silver, hand-cast, historical replica of the ring Joan of Arc’s parents gave her for her First Communion:

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Interested? Read on!
Why is your Etsy store named “Door Number 9?” 
If you Google my name, Elisa Low, you get a bunch of medical records, because the “elisa test” is a test for antibodies.
I painted murals on the doors of my house: the TARDIS, the door to Moria, Platform 9-3/4, 221B Baker Street. I have eight doors that are painted. So I thought, “My next project, my Etsy store, will be Door Number 9.” I’ve had my Etsy store for six or seven years, but about three or four years ago, I renamed it Door Number 9, and refocused it.

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.

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I’m going to make them with sepia-toned pictures of modern saints — kind of steampunk geek-style, with Catholic subject matter.

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.

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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.

For good Catholic art, you can’t just make something, stick a “Catholic” label on it, and have it be good art.

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.

[img attachment=”121728″ align=”aligncenter” size=”medium” alt=”Adoration of the Shepherds by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1485″ caption=”Adoration of the Shepherds by Domenico Ghirlandaio, 1485″ /]

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.

Once, I had to go to this really scary meeting where I felt like it was me versus a bunch of powerful people. I had a necklace that had charms based on The Hunger Games to help me identify with the characteristics of Katniss, like someone else might wear a medal of St. Peregrine.
Of course we’re not asking Katniss to intercede for us! Geeky sacramentals can blur the line between faith and geekdom, but for me, it’s clarified the line. I don’t ask Captain Janeway to intercede for me, but I do ask Jesus.

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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.

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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.

You sell goods that might make some more cautious Catholics uncomfortable, like reflective Pokémon-hunting shirts or Harry Potter earrings or a Labyrinth pen holder or a Thor’s hammer pendant. How would you answer someone who says Catholics shouldn’t be selling goods that make reference to magic?
I’d probably say, “Don’t buy my stuff because you agree or disagree with my philosophy. Buy it because it’s good, beautiful, and true, and if you see that it will bring joy to your life.”

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.

What I’m more concerned about, in the books that I and my kids read, is the flavor of the universe. The flavor of the Harry Potter universe is one in which family, friends, and goodness are valued, and they win, and evil is defeated. If you take the Douglas Adams universe, that’s not a joy-filled universe. I enjoy it, but it’s not a wholesome, delightful universe. It’s a sarcastic, dry universe. It’s fine to make jokes about, but it’s not one I would want to live in.
What have your most popular ideas been? And if you don’t mind saying, what has been your biggest flop?

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.

One that was more popular than I expected is leather wrap bracelets with medals on them, a crucifix and a St. Benedict medal.

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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.

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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.

And I’d love to own a design firm that does historical replicas. It’s amazing, having accessible to us, in our everyday life, something that has a story behind it. It’s like geek jewelry but with real life heroes.  The stories behind historical figures are every bit as good as geek and sci fi and fantasy stories. Also, there are no licensing fees!

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.

[img attachment=”121691″ align=”aligncenter” size=”medium” alt=”hamilton-ring” /]

I have the prototype, and I’m waiting to get a corrected model from my 3D CAD guy, then sending it to the foundry so they can make a mold and cast the corrected version and have me look it over.
Do you have advice for folks who would like to start making and selling their own goods? 

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.

[img attachment=”121719″ align=”aligncenter” size=”medium” alt=”Aldi quarter keeper keychain” caption=”Aldi quarter keeper keychain” /]

What differentiates someone else might be personalized things, or whatever, but you can’t just make a generic earring. Why would they buy yours and not the ones at Target, which are probably cheaper?

[img attachment=”121720″ align=”aligncenter” size=”medium” alt=”K9 Poodle Skirt” caption=”K9 Poodle Skirt” /]

What’s really helped me is to make some rules for myself. What will I sell in my store?
-It has to be something that is small, so it’s easy to store and ship.
-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?

I work at night a lot because i don’t get interrupted. And there is something magical about nighttime.

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.

Working in the costume shop helps a lot. There are so many different inspirations there; it’s crammed full of stuff from every century. I get lots of ideas while working. It’s not only receptivity of the senses but of imagination. I get into that headspace of following whatever associations turn up, turning of the analyzing and judging part of my brains. I just put stuff down on paper and edit later.
If you start trying to make it perfect to start with — start with the end in mind — it does not work for creativity. Or for spiritual life, either. That’s been really helpful in my spiritual life. I get so stuck trying to figure out the perfect thing to do. Sometimes you just need to scribble on the paper, put something down, and then start making a shape out of it.


To enter the raffle for the hand-cast Joan of Arc replica ring, see part II here.



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