I spoke with the incredibly brilliant and handsome Ryan Matthew Cohn about Oddities on the Science Channel, articulating skeletons, his store Against Nature, clowns, fashion, jewelry, films and so much more. Ryan is a remarkable individual and I don’t think that I have ever encountered anyone as fascinating as him. I could listen to him talk about articulating skeletons all day long and not get bored. He has a special way of conveying complicated material in a manner that keeps it interesting and enjoyable. He would make an exceptional teacher. I really enjoyed speaking with him and he is an eccentric charming gentleman as well, so that is a plus. You really need to check out his websites that I have listed at the top of the page. Ryan does so many things that I’m sure you can find something that strikes your fancy between his gorgeous accessories, osteological business, clothing shops and so many other outlets. I am so happy that I was watching Conan when Evan and Mike were on discussing Oddities and their shop, Obscura. I found the show on the Science Channel and luckily they were running a marathon so I was able to catch up and now it is one of my favorite shows. My weekend of being a couch potato turned me on to a new show and Ryan turned out to be one of my favorite interview specimens. Don’t miss the season finale of Oddities, June 11th at 10 PM EST only on Science Channel. Actress Chloe Sevigny (American Psycho) will be stopping by the shop.
Lena: I just found out about your show, Oddities, when I saw Evan and Mike on Conan and all it took was a clip of Edgar (Oliver) and I was hooked.
Ryan Matthew: Yeah, Edgar’s great.
Lena: What is it like filming the show and working with Evan and Mike?
Ryan Matthew: It’s wonderful. The main reason why I did it was because I’ve known Mike and Evan for about twelve years. When I first moved to New York City I was already deeply into collecting this kind of stuff and I just stumbled across their shop one day. It was basically love at first site. I would go out and find stuff to sell to them and I would sell things out of my collection to them but mostly I would just go and buy things that they already had in the shop. It basically becomes very simple because I am working with friends and colleagues. It’s been really nice to work with them and I don’t think I would have done it in any other setting.
Lena: You moved from the Discovery Channel to the Science Channel. Is that better for you?
Ryan Matthew: It’s a different audience. I think it’s great because it’s more of an educational network as is Discovery but even more so. Our show has become more scientific in information as a result so we really get a chance to talk more about some of these items in a more educational fashion. Because of that we get a lot of younger people or even parents contacting us saying, “Little Donnie is really, really enjoying science as a result of you guys and I appreciate it.” We get a lot of younger people contacting us that are very interested in a lot of the things that we do on the show especially what I do, skeletal articulation, which is pretty broad spectrum. It’s a subject that is not widely discussed. There are not that many resources to learn how to build a skull or to clean them. I think this show has been really good for that. We are happy to be on Science now. I think it’s a better fit.
Lena: Are you self-taught?
Ryan Matthew: I am. There was a guy about five years ago that gave me my first skeleton in a box and said, “Here put this together and call me, I want to see how you did”. It was kind of a mess but I more or less got it together just by looking at pictures and visiting museums and stuff like that. It was always a strong interest of mine and like I said about five years ago, I started getting very interested in it and then making an actual business out of it, as well.
Lena: What you do requires an immense amount of knowledge of not only anatomy but so much more. One thing that makes your work stand out and makes it incredible is your artistic vision. Your exploded skulls are crazy.
Ryan Matthew: Thank you. Those existed in the mid-nineteenth century and I’m just carrying on the tradition. There’s really nobody that I know of that makes these anymore. I really like the old ones that I have seen and the Mutter Museum in PA has two really nice examples. There were a couple of other companies that did it up until about the ‘20s or ‘30s then they just started making them out of plastic and in other such ways. I try to make mine a little more elaborate and ornate. They were teaching aids to really teach a young osteologist or even someone in the MD world what the human head consists of. So they are not only teaching tools but also works of art.
Lena: The process must be painstaking. How long does it usually take you?
Ryan Matthew: The process of disarticulation can take up to two weeks, just to get it apart. Then there is a period of drying and then the actual articulation, where you are putting it together, that can take upwards of a month sometimes or longer. The smaller skulls tend to be a little easier for me to do whereas the human skulls, first off they cost a lot more money to make so there is a lot more care involved and you are using bigger components. The larger ones can take a lot longer.
Lena: Out of everything that you have done so far, what has been your favorite project?
Ryan Matthew: Actually, I did a project recently and it’s a skull that I took and vertically cut into six pieces. It’s almost like an accordion and I mounted it on a base and it’s on not really a hanging system, but a poll that I oiled so you can move it and put all of the components together and hook it so it looks like a normal skull. You can unhook it and you can turn each of the pieces 360.
Lena: Oh, that sounds interesting.
Ryan Matthew: I can send you pictures. We just shot it this weekend.
Lena: What would you like to tackle that you haven’t gotten a chance to so far?
Ryan Matthew: What I would like to tackle is the preservation of organs. It’s a process that most people refer to as plastination but it goes far beyond plastination. Plastination has only existed since 1978 however people have been preserving wet specimens for centuries. I wanted to learn some of the older techniques like wax injection and other techniques that don’t leave the specimen looking sort of opaque. Have you ever seen the Bodies Exhibit?
Ryan Matthew: I was impressed by the fact that it’s teaching people once again and I think it is educating young people about science and it’s just in general, teaching people. It’s giving people a chance to learn about science. I don’t know; it can be very stuffy otherwise. It can be very stuffy for some people to go to museums so this was a little bit easier to relate to. I didn’t like it because I don’t like the actual preservation. I just don’t think that it looks that natural. Yes, it’s a preserved organ but there is no real color and depth to it and I didn’t like that aspect. What I am trying to do is learn some of the more old-fashioned techniques done by anatomists such as Frederick Ruysch. Fragonard is another inventor of early types of plastination. What I want to do is cut open one of these skulls and be able to embed a preserved brain on the inside of it. So not only can you examine the human skull but you can actually examine what is inside the head which are organs, eyes, brains, that type of stuff.
Lena: Wow, now that sounds really interesting.
Ryan Matthew: Yeah, you know, it’s not for everyone. You can look at it one way as a piece of artwork or you can take it medically speaking and turn it into an educational device. I think that my work is sort of in between the two.
Lena: I find it fascinating. You bring in the artistic element so it’s better than just plain medical specimens.
Ryan Matthew: The thing with modern medical apparatus is that it looks simplistic and the thing that you are supposed to be looking at is the specimen and not necessarily the components that make up the specimen. I like to have both because back in the early part of medical preparation and what became specimens; they were very ornate. The early exploded skulls were all sculptured brass and early types of mechanical pieces that would move and come apart and were just built better. I’m a firm believer that everything was built better back in the day and that’s why every single thing in my home besides my TV and my computer are old, they are antique. Things are just not built to last. Things are disposable these days. I hate it. You won’t find any IKEA in my home, I assure you.
Lena: I have two chinchillas as pets and they are still alive, of course but have you ever articulated a chinchilla?
Ryan Matthew: A chinchilla, no but I’ve done like five or six different types of dog breeds. They were mostly smaller breeds. I did a Chihuahua and a Pug, which had an interesting skull. I’m not sure what the other ones were to be honest with you. They may have just been smaller mutts. Well, God forbid if they ever die I can articulate the skeletons.
Lena: I don’t know. Maybe I will give you my chinchillas.
Ryan Matthew: That’s really funny, someone contacted me a few days ago to tell me that their chinchilla died. And they were saying, “What should I do with this, Ryan?” I don’t do that much taxidermy. I am capable of doing it but I live in a Brooklyn apartment so it’s not the right facility to do taxidermy. I don’t think so but if they wanted the skeleton articulated I could probably do it.
Lena: I’m sure it would be pretty cute because chinchillas have nice craniums.
Ryan Matthew: Yeah, I’ve never boxed up any of my skeletons so far.
Lena: Well, hopefully mine live for a very long time.
Ryan Matthew: I hope they do. You know where to take them to morph them into memorials.
Lena: Well, if you want to come over with a shovel, I did have hamsters that died years ago.
Ryan Matthew: So you have a bunch of mummified hamsters in the backyard.
Lena: I know it’s like Poltergeist back there. (For some reason I always think of the scene in Poltergeist when the family is in the yard and it is filling up with water and all of the coffins open up and the skeletons are exposed. I always think of that with a couple of hamster skeletons floating by.)
Ryan Matthew: Oh really, it’s like Pet Cemetery.
Lena: No, I actually don’t have that many but hamsters don’t live that long so there are a couple (buried in the backyard).
Ryan Matthew: Actually, when I first moved to my apartment, I’ve been there for quite some time now because I’m not capable of moving at this point because I have so many things. I was gardening in the backyard and found a partial dog skeleton.
Lena: Where you able to use it?
Ryan Matthew: It’s like basically, a box of bones. I have it in my studio and I never really did anything with it. I’ll probably give it to my next girlfriend as a present.
Lena: Lucky her!
Ryan Matthew: I know what a dreamboat Ryan is.
Lena: Your fashion is impeccable.
Ryan Matthew: Thank you so much.
Lena: It’s very classy and elegant like a proper gentleman but your tattoos and hairdo add an edge to it. You’re very debonair and I do love the look.
Ryan Matthew: Thank you. I have a business called Against Nature, which a lot of people don’t know because we don’t discuss it on Oddities but I am a co-owner of a bespoke suit business down in the lower east side on Chrystie St. I get all of my stuff done here. Everything is custom, even my shirts and jeans. There is a guy that does custom denim here. So that’s why I always have on a nice suit. Years back when we opened up this business, it’s been a few years now, from then on it’s been suits. When I go riding my bike on the weekend I wear a full suit.
Lena: Are you serious? That is so cute.
Ryan Matthew: Yeah. It’s a little eccentric but I’ve actually gotten used to it and for whatever reason, I don’t tend to feel heat as a little of people here do. Even today, I’m not wearing my vest today but I’m wearing a dress shirt and a suit jacket.
Lena: So you are going low-key today without the vest?
Ryan Matthew: A little low-key today and I don’t have on a tie. I try to not wear ties during the day in the summer at least because it gets so excruciating.
Lena: Oh, I can’t talk to you now, then.
Ryan Matthew: Why? Oh geez, I’ve offended you by not wearing a tie today.
Lena: Yeah, I’m just teasing. You don’t make any of the clothes, you just make the jewelry?
Ryan Matthew: I do all of the accessories, yeah. Doyle Mueser is the team that makes all of the clothing here and Simon Jacobs makes all of my jeans for me. There are three components that really make up the store; custom denim, the suits and all my accessories. I do a lot of stuff out of skulls of course and other things.
Lena: Yes, I saw them on your site. All of the clothes are beautiful and I loved how you incorporated all of your friends into the pictures (to model the clothes). I love that.
Ryan Matthew: Yeah, that’s the thing with Oddities, too. Most of the people that are on Oddities are just friends and colleagues of ours. It’s been really good for a lot of them. They are people that shop there regularly so they would just meander in and it was like, “Hey do you want to be on the show since you are just buying this weird thing like you usually do?” It’s been really cool and we just do the same thing with our store. It’s just a really big family or community of people that do this sort of craft and carry on traditions. That’s our big thing.
Lena: That’s very nice. Now working with metal, do you do all of your own casting and the entire process?
Ryan Matthew: The only thing I don’t do is casting. I’ll come up with the original concept and I’ll either sculpt it out of wax or what I like to do a lot of the time is find old elements like old military things and sort of piecemeal my things together. I have this old lapel wing that was like a pilot’s set of wings that they would wear on their lapel and I fashioned it into a ring. Then I recast it so it comes back to me unfinished and I do all of the finishing work like cutting off the sprues and polishing it and then oxidizing it. I tend to age a lot of my jewelry so it looks old.
Lena: Yes, I love that. I love vintage clothing, corsets and stuff like that.
Ryan Matthew: Cool, I love the process of building corsets. It’s very, very interesting and extensive. My ex-girlfriend was a corset maker. She studied with an amazing woman Upstate and she really doesn’t do it that much anymore for some reason. Her stuff was just fantastic.
Lena: Any fan of the show knows that you don’t like toenail clippings. (A customer brought in some toenail art and Ryan was clearly repulsed.)
Ryan Matthew: It’s not that I don’t like toenail clippings but I’ve never really seen anything like that. I do appreciate Rachel’s work. I think it’s amazing and I really liked her little bellybutton lint bear, it’s adorable. It’s not that it repulsed me and I don’t think that much does and it’s a common question that comes up. “Come on man what actually grosses you out because you do a lot of things that would gross out other people”? I don’t know. There is not much. I’ve had to change the liquid on an old antique specimen and a jar broke and it was a pickled specimen that has been there for like twenty years and that can be a little nauseating. It does come with the territory.
Lena: Oh, you must have thrown up with that smell, yuck.
Ryan Matthew: Nope, that has never happened.
Lena: Never, really?
Ryan Matthew: No. There was one time a fan of the show, as a token of their appreciation to me or affection I guess I should say, gave me this skeleton in a box. I guess it was a fox skeleton and they came in and brought it in and I thought it was so sweet. I took the thing out and it was all bagged up so I didn’t immediately know what it was other than the fact that they said it was a fox skeleton, however the stench upon opening the bag was nauseating and I almost threw up. It had not been properly cleaned and there was a lot of the flesh still on it. It also comes with the territory when you are cleaning skeletons, it is a process and they had gotten halfway through and had given me this uncleansed skeleton. When I took it out I was wearing rubber gloves but it pierced through my gloves, it was so potent. I could not get the smell out of my fingers and it was one of the grosser things. Cleaning or macerating a skeleton can be quite disgusting. I still do it though.
Lena: You still didn’t get sick?
Ryan Matthew: No, I didn’t get sick. That never actually happens. It takes a lot to actually make me throw up, if you want me to say that word.
Lena: So you have a stomach of steel. That is crazy.
Ryan Matthew: You have to have a hard skin in this business.
Lena: Yeah, I don’t know how you do it. (I would like to borrow Ryan’s stomach when I clean Jared Leto Bunny’s liter box.)
Ryan Matthew: Well, doctors do it every single day. Doctors dissect people and put people back together and it takes a certain mind to be able to handle something like that.
Lena: We got to see you go on a first date with the added pressure of a film crew.
Ryan Matthew: Yeah, that was really interesting.
Lena: First dates are uncomfortable enough never mind having everyone watching so perhaps next time you can go on a double date with Edgar? (Edgar Oliver is incredible. He was also in one of my favorite movies, Gentlemen Broncos.)
Ryan Matthew: Oh, Edgar would have to allow me to do something like that. Edgar is probably one of the sweetest men that we have ever had in our store. He’s real genuine and I don’t know what the word is to describe him. He is exactly how you saw him on TV. He’s a very gentle, kind-hearted soul. He’s also a very well-known artist in the Lower East Side. He’s been here forever. Sure, I would go on a double date with him. I’d do anything with Edgar. I don’t get to see him that often. It’s always a pleasure when I do.
Lena: You mentioned that you were a musician, so what do you play?
Ryan Matthew: I play guitar and I sing. That’s the part of my life that I don’t really practice anymore, at least not a lot. I was in rock ‘n’ roll bands all throughout my twenties and stopped only recently, like about five years ago or so. Uh oh, I hope that’s not putting a number on me.
Ryan Matthew: No, I don’t care. I’m proud to be thirty one.
Lena: Thirty one, yeah you are so old. So I guess I won’t see your band playing live?
Ryan Matthew: Actually, they asked me to play this event a week from now and I said I’m just too busy. It’s really hard to practice all of these different mediums consecutively and really be true to one of them. It’s hard to juggle my store, my osteological business and then deal with the show, it’s a lot. It’s like every single day. And trying to keep some sort of social life on top of it, it gets really strenuous.
Lena: I’m a live band photographer so that is why I asked.
Ryan Matthew: Oh cool, it could happen. They ask me every now and again. It was amazing. We got to tour all over the world and it was a really fun experience and I wouldn’t trade it in for anything. It was the most fun like playing music with your friends and then having anyone appreciate it, it’s wonderful. I’d say in the future I would do something a little more low-key and just do it for fun and not a business.
Lena: What were some of the bands that you were in, maybe I have heard of them?
Ryan Matthew: I was in a band called Stalkers. They kind of play around now but I think our hay day was in the early 2000s. That was my favorite band because they were my best friends growing up. Actually, there is a guy Andy, who is in one of the episodes and he sold me an animatronic clown. I don’t know if you saw that episode?
Lena: The clown, yes I did. (Andy’s laugh in the episode of Oddities kills me.)
Ryan Matthew: That’s my buddy Andy and he was in the Stalkers. He’s like this hilarious giant oaf. It was really funny first of all that he found this gigantic clown. He and I grew up in Woodstock together and he got me into punk rock and metal. That is kind of what I listened to throughout my childhood and then we started the band together.
Lena: I would not want that clown in my house.
Ryan Matthew: I would not want that clown in my house because it’s too new for me but not only that, it’s pretty intimidating. It’s a pretty tall clown, actually.
Lena: Yeah, it would not be good for me because I’m pretty short.
Ryan Matthew: The reason why it was cool and I think the reason why he was trying to sell it to us was because it looks just like the clown from Pee-wee’s Big Adventure.
Lena: Yes it does but ever since Poltergeist, I want nothing to do with clowns.
Ryan Matthew: Yeah, that’s understandable.
Lena: I would not want that thing dragging me under the bed.
Ryan Matthew: Yes, of course. That would freak the shit out of me, too.
Lena: What is your favorite horror movie?
Ryan Matthew: It’s a toss-up between Spider Baby and The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre is a lot of people’s favorite horror movie but that movie basically changed my life. It was one of the first movies I think, besides Pee-wee’s Big Adventure that I watched it and I just watched it right over again.
Lena: Did you like The Thing? That is a pretty creepy movie.
Ryan Matthew: Yeah but I wasn’t obsessed with it like I was with The Texas Chain Saw Massacre. I really like old slasher films like The Last House on the Left. One of the cool things about Spider Baby and The Last House on the Left was there soundtracks were fucking astounding and that was one of the main reasons why I really liked those and also some of the noises in The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, so not only do you have an aesthetic experience but you also have this amazing soundtrack that goes along with them. The Last House on the Left had this beautiful folk soundtrack. It was actually one of the villains in the movie that did all of the composing for it and singing.
Lena: I’ve never seen Spider Baby.
Ryan Matthew: That one is amazing and it has Sid Haig in it.
Lena: Oh, yeah.
Ryan Matthew: You know who Sid Haig is?
Lena: Yeah, I’ve met him.
Ryan Matthew: Yeah, he was in all the Rob Zombie movies and now he’s resurging. He’s been in a lot of stuff actually. He’s just so utterly creepy in that movie. I used to actually draw him because I liked that movie so much.
Lena: So you draw as well?
Ryan Matthew: Oh yeah, that is one thing that I don’t show a lot of people but that is what I did early on because I wanted to become a medical illustrator when I was younger. I did these photo realistic drawings on old cabinet cards. They were basically little tiny, say two and a half inch by one and a half inch drawings that just looked like old photos. I would draw some famous people, if I found them interesting and it would be like little tiny portraitures. I do some medical illustrations still but it’s a medium that I don’t practice often but unfortunately, I’m probably the best at drawing but I just don’t do it. I just don’t have time.
Lena: Wow, is there anything that you don’t do?
Ryan Matthew: I’m not very good at dancing.
Lena: You wear those beautiful suits and you can’t dance?
Ryan Matthew: Yeah, I know. It’s really a travesty. I don’t know if it’s that I can’t. There are a lot of things that I can’t do but that is the one thing that I’ve always thought, oh man, it would be so cool if I could dance really well. I guess I never really tried. There is still time. I have rhythm because I played guitar.
Lena: Obscura has a lot of interesting clientele and you have also had some celebrities on the show like, Jonathan Davis and I think they all add to the charm of the show. How would you describe Oddities and the customers to someone that has never seen the show?
Ryan Matthew: It really is a broad spectrum of people that come in there. You have your celebrities, your really, really high end collectors that buy some of the super rare items that we have in there and then musicians will meander in there. Lawyers will come in and buy things for their kids and then just your local neighborhood weirdos. We have a ton of those and then students because there is a pretty broad price range in there. We have things that cost $25,000 dollars and then we have things that cost $25 so it really applies to everyone and anyone that is interested in this particular genre.
Lena: You are in a great location too because New York has them all. I love the city.
Ryan Matthew: Definitely. Where are you?
Lena: I’m in Rhode Island but I’ve been to New York several times to cover shows and what not.
Ryan Matthew: Oh cool.
Lena: What projects are you working on now and what can we expect to see from you in the future on Oddities and in every other facet of your vastly creative existence?
Ryan Matthew: I’m developing some more stuff jewelry wise for the store and for one of the new stores that we opened up. I’m also looking to do some more interesting osteological prep work. I just bought a very, very old human skull, probably a couple of hundred years old and I just started cutting it. I’m going to try to attempt to do twelve cuts vertically. I think the next skull I’m going to cut horizontally in the same type of manner so that you can open these things up and see every aspect of the thing. You can see the cross section, you can see the interior, you can see the exterior and they’ll be as elaborate as I can. Hopefully, I get into the process of plastination or something similar to the process. I hope to be doing that in the next year so I can start preserving hearts and brains.
Lena: What can we expect on the upcoming episodes of Oddities?
Ryan Matthew: Well, I guess you will just have to find out. You know, we never know what is going to come into the store. It’s an interesting experience every single day that I’m involved with the shop. You also never know what you are going to go out and find in the field. What is truly interesting about this type of work is that you wake up at two in the morning to go out to a flea market and it’s dark, it’s gross and it’s cold and you don’t know whether you are going to come home with a little glass doll or the most rare item that you have ever had in your possession. Sometimes we walk away from those things having traveled for hours and being groggy and cranky and having to deal with angry people that had to wake up at twelve in the morning to go to this flea market and we don’t get anything. It makes it all the more worthwhile when you do find something truly rare, exotic or unique. A lot of those things end up in my personal collection.
Lena: I don’t believe you get cranky.
Ryan Matthew: I get very cranky. No, not really. I’m a pretty happy-go-lucky guy but I do have to wake up at two in the morning and then your day ends at like ten and you have to go to sleep, so. It’s not for everybody but what we do makes it the best job on earth because we really love what we do.
Lena: I had some people write into my site wanting to know if you are single and everyone loves you, by the way. (I think everyone saw the episode where Ryan went on a date and they want to know how it worked out and if they are together.)
Ryan Matthew: In the last interview I did with the Science Channel that’s like all they were asking me. So yeah, right now I am.
Lena: Well, your work is absolutely incredible. I find you so fascinating.
Ryan Matthew: Thank you so much. I appreciate that.
Oddities Press Release from the Science Channel: Where can you go when you’re in dire need of a used straight jacket? What if you just have to have a two-headed cat or a book bound with human flesh to make your living room complete? There’s only one emporium sublimely weird enough to carry these bizarre items and countless more – Obscura Antiques and Oddities in New York’s East Village. Science Channel’s breakout series, Oddities, follows Obscura’s proprietors, Mike and Evan, as well as an assortment of hilariously-unique patrons who are even more outlandish than the merchandise. Obscura is renowned for having some of the rarest and most-eccentric antique pieces found anywhere – from circus sideshow props, to shocking natural anomalies, to oddball items dabbling in the occult. Aficionados of the unusual from throughout the U.S. and beyond know that Obscura is the only place to purchase their next treasure – or sell their own abnormal assets. Mike, Evan and consultant Ryan serve as the ringmasters for this one-of-a-kind experience that’s part swap meet and part cult rally. ODDITIES- Love Stones- SEASON FINALE- JUNE 11, 2011 10pm ET/PT only on SCIENCE CHANNEL While on the hunt for items for Obscura Antiques and Oddities Mike locates an old plasticized part of the human anatomy but finds it to be more of an eye popping experience than he had originally planned on. Then, Mike’s wife Kris recruits Evan and Ryan to find the perfect birthday gift for Mike. When they return from an exhaustive hunt with a disturbingly grotesque medical specimen his wife presents it to him in a way only Mike can truly appreciate. Later, Actress Chloe Sevigny wanders in and finds a lewd old time gag that she gets a rise out of.
(Watch the season finale of Oddities, June 11th on the Science Channel.)
Ryan Matthew Cohn Interview
ODDITIES Saturdays at 10 PM EST on Science Channel
Photo credits: Sergio Royzen and Sara Gage
Interview by Lena Lamoray
June 5, 2011