Louisville artist Sarah Moeding has made quite a name for herself over the years as the owner/operator of Dead Things By Sarah. Her ever-changing line of jewelry is incredibly fascinating as her work consists of semi-precious stones, raw and patina copper, vintage chains, and other found objects, most notably bones and fur from deceased animals (road kill, pest animals, and other ethical resources). Her utilization of these resources makes for a truly unique collection of wearable objects, such as a cool set of earrings or a beautiful necklace.
You’ve probably seen her in a booth peddling her jewelry at The Flea Off Market or some other festival setting in Louisville, but her work is consistently available in town at Consider Boutique, Dot Fox, and Unorthodox (a delightful, often unknown oddities shop in Old Louisville at 6th and Oak). It’s also worth mentioning that her work can be found inside boutiques located in Minneapolis, Nashville, New Orleans and Los Angeles (go here for more details). If you’re not the brick and mortar type, like and follow Dead Things By Sarah on Facebook to keep up with her evolving inventory. Got an idea for Sarah? You can also e-mail her with any requests — no matter how weird what you have in my mind may seem, she’s probably open to your ideas.
Given that her work is so fascinating, I figured that I had to reach out to Sarah to get a better understanding of who she is and what the motivation behind Dead Things really is. Read on as we discuss her fascination with the macabre, the history of Dead Things, and what motivates her as an artist.
Never Nervous: Where would you say your fascination with animal bones originated from?
Sarah Moeding: I know I was always interested in the macabre, from a very young age. I was a very quick study as a wee one, and my mom taught me to read before I was 3. By 6, reading at about an 8th grade level, I was devouring all of the books the library had to offer on matters of the occult, human biology (including, but not limited to, how babies were made), ghosts, poltergeists, everything that would keep a person up at night.
For me, it was self-soothing. Yes, I had nightmares, but I learned a lot about myself from them, even then. I also read, you know, the Babysitter’s Club et al, but they were my ‘popcorn movie’ sorts of books. I got into books about Anton Mesmer and things like Wharton’s The Age of Innocence in junior high, and that transported me into worlds of money and strict rules of propriety that also fed something in me that I associate with the “weird,” having come from a very blue collar background, growing up in rural South Dakota.
And the bones came after that, but it’s all connected, for me, it’s a timeline. I remember the day I saw a dead animal and couldn’t look away. I was on a camping trip with friends the summer after 8th grade, I am grateful to have been raised in a time where adults didn’t hover over their children and we were allowed to run amok to a certain degree; we were there for a birthday party, and our friend’s parents pointedly set up their pop up camper across the campground from us, and let us pitch our three tents well out of eye or earshot. We were with older boys, a sophomore who was dating the birthday girl, and his friends, which was not unusual because our town was so small, it was K-12 in one building, so you knew everyone.
We had friends who were 6th graders, friends who were seniors. We had some booze, amaretto and Zima (god bless the early 90s), and while I partook, it wasn’t something I was really into, then. That whole night was a little bit Lord of the Flies, the guy who bought us booze was 21 and stuck around much too late, and I took a Mag light to his back as he went after my passed out friend in her tent before we ran him out of the campground, and later, I remember corralling my much more intoxicated friends and orchestrating a walk all around the campground, and then, at dawn, after we’d all gotten maybe an hour of sleep, we got up and walked down to the lake, which was probably a mile away from the campground. It was there, on that walk, after that night where I felt like both freed child and put-upon parent, that I saw this huge fish on the side of the road.
A fox, a coyote, or a raccoon had likely found it in a campsite nearby, or dragged it up from the beach. It was well eaten in the gut-area, but relatively fresh. And I stood there, mesmerized. Enough that my friends, who initially stopped with me, went on down the road, making fun of me, and I lost sight of them even as I heard them in that muffled, muddied way you hear things when you’re completely fixated on something else. I remember just having one thought: ‘This. is. beautiful.’ The combination of predation and death and the beginnings of decay were absolutely fascinating to me. And all of these details leading up to that moment are so important. That was such a defining moment for me.
Later that summer, I bought a turtle claw at a small renaissance festival in the “big” town of Brookings, SD, nearby. I made it into a crude necklace by wrapping leather cord around it, and wore it often. That was the beginning of my collecting ‘dead things,’ as I called them even then.
NN: Is there a particular part of town that you find most of your inventory? How easy is it for you to scavenge bones? How difficult is it to sterilize bones, fur, or any of the other components you tend to use? Is there a cleaning process?
SM: You’re going to be disappointed, but I don’t do any scavenging for my jewelry, and I don’t process any of my bones. It’s a lot of work. A lot of smelly, gross work. I don’t have the stomach for it, nor do I have the time for it. I know it might seem incongruous that I can deal with bones with no issue and find death objectively beautiful but not want to deal with the physical process of cleaning the bones, but there you have it. If I find a bone while hiking or on a beach or something, I will definitely take it home with me and put it on my mantle, but only if it has already been cleaned by nature.
For my bone supply, I work with others who enjoy the scavenging, etc. There’s a small group of people in the Pacific Northwest who scavenge in the woods and that’s where the bulk of my bones come from; I get coyote paw bones and wrist bones and jaw bones mostly from them, but sometimes they’ll have something else I’ll try to work with, like muskrat jaws. I have another source in Hawaii who deals only with shed antlers he finds in the forests there. He does absolutely beautiful work polishing and drilling the antler tips in a way I don’t see in others’ antler work. In general, it’s important to me to find ethical bone sources that also find me giving my money to fellow small businesses. We all gotta keep one another going!
“In general, it’s important to me to find ethical bone sources that also find me giving my money to fellow small businesses.”
NN: What inspires you to create? Whether it be related to music, visual art, film — who or what lights your fire?
SM: I tend to put on TV series’ while I work as I can pay attention aurally without being locked in visually and work for hours on end that way. My average work day is anywhere from 3-13 hours, however long the inspiration and motivation last, so I get a lot of watching in. I honestly don’t know where the inspiration comes from for most of my work, it’s mostly a lot of trial and error. I have, however, gotten a fair amount of validation from the things I watch — noting that, without intentionally knowing I was doing it, I’d locked into certain elements of Viking jewelry, or Edwardian styles, or big, boho pieces while watching Vikings, Downton Abbey or Grace and Frankie, usually in work that I’d done weeks or months before.
I will also note what’s trending in jewelry and do what I need to to make it ‘mine’ without copping anyone else’s steez. Bone jewelry has always been a ‘thing’ as long as people have been wearing jewelry, and there’s nothing new under the sun in a lot of ways, but I also don’t see bone work that looks like mine, and it’s great to run into people, literally in other cities, wearing my things, and know immediately that it’s something I made, and that it’s a one of a kind thing that no one else has.
I love music, film, tv, books enormously (currently listening to Fleetwood Mac’s Bare Trees, recently saw Phantom Thread and loved it, we spent the last week gorging ourselves on Mr. Robot, I’m reading I’m Your Man, the last Leonard Cohen biography, and about to tuck in to my friend Patrick Nathan’s new novel Some Hell), but I can’t say that any one thing inspires me in that regard, necessarily. Life inspires me. Its beauty and darkness and flux and futility and hopefulness.
It might be most accurate to say that the threat of having my power shut off is my biggest inspiration–I make this business work on gas fumes and pocket change, and while I am ever inching toward having all the bills paid on time, it’s a constant hustle. It would be a wondrous thing to have some kind of benefactor; there are so many things I cannot do to further my work because I simply do not have the funds to make it happen. I want to learn metal smithing, I want to do real lapidary work, but as it stands, I am limited in my materials and skill set until something changes, there.
“Life inspires me. Its beauty and darkness and flux and futility and hopefulness.”
NN: Aside from the remains of animals, are there any other staples behind the jewelry you make?
SM: There are certain stones I am obsessed with and always have on hand, in several permutations. Chrysoprase is a huge favorite, and carnelian, labradorite, black spinel, and golden rutilated quartz–the latter is what I call ‘the witchiest stone,’ it just has a specific magick to it. I use a lot of semiprecious stones either by themselves or in conjunction with the bone work. I also use a lot of ‘dead stock’ or what has come to be known these days as ‘new old stock.’ There’s a dainty figure eight copper chain from the 1960s I use constantly that I will be absolutely devastated about when my supplier finally runs out.
NN: Considering that you accept custom orders, what is one of the more unusual requests you’ve received?
SM: Honestly, the requests aren’t that unusual. I think because I work with bone, and am obviously reverent about my work and the death process in general, people often come to me to help them memorialize a loved one, whether that be a human or pet, with various things. Bullets from a salute at a grandparent’s funeral. A scrap of fur from a dog’s tail. Unfortunately, because of my limitations in materials and knowledge, I often cannot help them, so I usually refer people on to others who do work more in line with what they’re looking for. I have several friends who work with bone and fur and whatnot, mostly in New Orleans, so it’s nice to have this little network to pass on work through.
I will say this, though. My sister gave me a bit of dried mint that she picked the day she went into labor with my nephew. She wants me to make a piece of jewelry for her with this. My nephew turns four in May. I’m still stumped. But I’m not giving up! The inspiration will present itself one day, and thankfully, my sister is patient, and understands I want to do this right, for her.
NN: I think it’s awesome that you take your jewelry on tour during the warmer months. Is there a particular city (other than Louisville) that you feel especially well received?
SM: I spend a lot of time in New Orleans. It’s my adopted third home (I came to Louisville from Minneapolis about five years ago, so that’s my de facto second home). I used to get down there about twice a month, but I’ve built up enough of a clientele that I don’t have to put that much wear and tear on my van anymore and now it’s more like 3-4 times a year. My best-selling store is there, Miette, on Magazine Street, and I’ve become very close to the owner, Angee Jackson, as well–another of many perks to this small business network; my business connections are friends, too.
I frequently do shows down on Frenchmen Street, and a couple other places, there. I also do well at shows I do in Indianapolis. But the city that really surprised me? Fort Wayne, Indiana. I had my best show ever there last fall, and it was clear that the people running the show I was doing were passionate about my work and that they had promoted my jewelry, leading up to the event. People greeted me with familiarity and enthusiasm. I can’t wait to do that show again, in September, at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, if they’ll have me.
NN: Have you considered taxidermy? Or is that something you’re already into?
SM: I very, very nearly began classes on taxidermy back when I was still in MN, but ultimately realized that I couldn’t handle the gore aspect when the prospect started to keep me up at night. It was about a year later that I began making the Dead Things by Sarah jewelry, in early 2013, though I’d had jewelry-making tools since 2002. It took ten years for me to start wrapping my head around what, exactly, it was that I wanted to do with jewelry, so I always encourage people to be patient with things they’re interested in exploring for that reason. Sometimes, you just have to look at some tools and materials you’ve bought or come into for a decade before they start making sense.
“It took ten years for me to start wrapping my head around what, exactly, it was that I wanted to do with jewelry, so I always encourage people to be patient.”
NN: Aside from what you create for Dead Things, are there any other artistic endeavors that you are working on? Music? Visual art?
SM: I’m a musician, an artist, and a writer. I’ve got the whole battalion of ‘will die penniless’ gifts at my fingertips! I had an alt-country blues noise drone project in Minneapolis the last few years I was there, called The Deceitful Lapwings. I wrote the lyrics, the melodies, and was the vocalist. I mean, I kind of have the project yet, we did do a reunion show last year in Minneapolis with my manfriend Carter’s band Bon Air, and we have talked about organizing a mini-tour from the Twin Cities down here to Louisville. We really love working together, and it’s an artistic outlet my five member team all value.
My main partner in that group, Russ Staiger, is a once in a lifetime collaborator, and I miss that a lot. Though I’ve had years of choral training, I’m really quite far from being a technical musician. I have to work with people who understand things like, ‘make it sound more yellow/more pointy/like a thunderstorm.’ Thankfully, I wind up working with people who do have a great deal of technical know-how who also have delightfully poetic souls, and they are able to translate me completely in music.
I also, back in MN, worked for a LEO Weekly type thing as an entertainment writer for seven years, called Vita.mn. I realized that it really wasn’t something I enjoyed; it was a lot of pressure to be on the pulse of everything going on in the city, which led to way too much social drinking, and it was a lot of stress on my mostly introverted person. Plus, I really don’t like deadlines. I would push that boundary to its very edge, much to the chagrin of my editor.
And while jewelry is definitely a visual art, I am also a painter, and miss that outlet. There’s just not enough creative juice leftover after making jewelry to make that kind of visual art, too. But, I’m patient with this; if I’m meant to paint, the inspiration will come. I used to be a poet, too. I did readings, I published a book. I’m not a poet anymore, I write songs. Maybe that’s what’s happened to my drive to paint; I make jewelry, now.
NN: Considering your gravitation to the deceased, is it safe to assume that you are a fan of horror films? And if so, do you have any personal favorites?
SM: I’m really not a fan of horror at all. Not the gore or torture porn or jump scare kinds, at least. I do infrequently spend Sunday nights at Seidenfaden’s at Gore Club, though, as the films shown there tend more toward the kitschy or apocalyptic end of the horror spectrum, and I can get behind that. Plus, many of the folks who are there on Sundays are among my first friends in Louisville, and it’s rare I see many of them outside of that space anymore. Existential horror and dread, some real angst and ennui, though, is more my speed. Michael Haneke is my favorite director, not a day goes by that I don’t consider aspects of The Piano Teacher or White Ribbon.
When I was a kid, though, I couldn’t get enough of horror films. Poltergeist, Hellraiser and The Prophesy series were all favorites. Still are, I suppose.
NN: Do people ever bring the remains of dead animals to you for you to use?
SM: Oh lawd, they try. I don’t know how many times people have messaged me to say they’ve got a dead squirrel in their freezer for me. It’s fallen off over the years, after many grateful declinations. My brother in law gave me a darling little saw whet owl that he’d found frozen in some machinery at one of his construction work sites, but it’s illegal to do anything with them or even have them in your possession without going through a lot of red tape, so getting it taxidermied would be a hassle, so I just wound up giving it to an artist I knew when I was about to move to Louisville, as a frozen owl wouldn’t have fared well and crossing state lines with one is extra illegal, alas.
I don’t know how many times people have messaged me to say they’ve got a dead squirrel in their freezer for me.
NN: If there was a montage scene in a movie that featured you, and only you working on jewelry for Dead Things, what music would be playing in the background?
SM: I really don’t know. It’s very quiet, methodical work. I neatly map out all the pieces I intend to make in any given day, all the beads, the clasps, the jump rings, etc, into sections, and slowly work through them. There are frequent breaks for coffee refills, pensive or joyful starings out the window, depending on whether or not one of the downstairs dogs is sniffing about or taking a handsome dump in the back yard, or if one of the neighborhood cats is on the roofs of the houses in the alley behind my house, there’s also snuggling and/or napping with any one of my four cats, smooch breaks with Carter, an hour here or there cleaning the kitchen, etc., and this is all interspersed with the pride I feel with each finished, almost always one of a kind piece.
I tend to favor music from the 70s these days, or avant garde composers from the 60s (though I am as much a fan, too, of Rihanna). So maybe some Moondog, or Else Marie Pade would be most suitable? I don’t know. My first instinct was Cocteau Twins, but there’s too much sturm and drang in that to be reflective of my work, or my process in making it. It’s more contemplative and calm than it is anything else, to spend a day making jewelry.