A Witch, That Makes Art, Out of Death
The “Artist You Should Know” series highlights Bay Area artists who are doing incredible work, it’s our way of supporting the creative community and helping to keep San Francisco a strange and wonderful place.
It’s not every day you meet a witch. But when you visit a 220-year-old Victorian Manor & Museum in Oakland, I suppose these things can happen.
I was there for a garden party and art fair, organized by the Alameda-based Menagerie Oddities Market. I was thoroughly hungover and dressed for a sunny, day-party, while everyone else was dressed for a funeral, in the Gilded Age, at midnight. “This place is definitely haunted,” I said aloud as I stumbled around a corner, through the midday heat, and into the manor gardens.
When I first saw the witch, she was wearing a dead creature around her neck, standing next to a stuffed, baby ostrich, and organizing a table full of decorative animal corpses, prodigious jewelry, and other paraphernalia from perdition. A synthwave song began to play from the DJ booth, and I thought, “well…there’s no way this won’t be interesting.”
“Hello there,” I said to the ostrich.
“That’s Henrietta,” the witch answered, “isn’t she beautiful?”
Then I heard a voice from behind me, “Oh my god look at these evil stuffed animals!”
Katy, our East Bay Editor had already found what she was looking for.
“Sweet jesus…” I said under my breath, a colorful stand full of furry children’s toys adorned with fangs, stared at us. “There’s a lot to unpack there,” I thought. Back to the witch.
“So, uh, did you hunt all these animals yourself?” I asked.
“Some were brought to me by friends, others are roadkill or other woodland casualties,” she replied, busily organizing her booth, pausing here and there to greet customers or to adjust the pose of her taxidermy art.
Right away I knew this witch was from Northern California, the few witches I’ve met are. There’s something about the forests in Mendocino and the cliffs on the Lost Coast that harbor a kind of…darkness. But this particular forest dweller tells me she’s moving to the Bay Area, to be closer to more subculture, fellow dark artists, more opportunities to perform burlesque as Véve Decay, just more.
She tells me she didn’t sleep well last night because she was bothered by a spirit, and that she had put down a line of salt in order to get some peace. She tells me this without irony, as if that anecdote was as routine as a story about traffic on her commute. I have a mild fascination with people who exhibit exceptional confidence in beliefs that are exceedingly strange.
Before the witch had to sprinkle salt at my feet, and knowing what it’s like to be at work and have to field questions from a simpleton, I got the witch’s Instagram and left her to ply her trade in peace.
Behind me, Katy Atchison was busy choosing which nightmare toy to hang in her house.
She chose well.
I spoke with the witch Lauren Elizabeth Miller on the phone from her new home in the East Bay. She’s well-read and has a subtle, dark elegance about her. She embraces things most people shy away from, she likes to talk about death, corpse rights, goth activism, and taxidermy, while subjects like goth-pop culture or music are far less interesting to her.
Meet Lauren Elizabeth Miller, the ‘Good Witch’ of the East Bay, and a dark artist you should know.
Name: Lauren Elizabeth Miller
AM: Tell me about the first time you processed a dead creature
LEM: One night I found a neighborhood cat crouched over a fresh mouse kill. It was long gone, but I knew I wanted to try and honor its little life. I froze the creature so that any mites or parasites would die and got to work. I’d incorporated the skills I’d read about from both traditional and more modern taxidermy practice sources. Once I realized what I was made of, it’s been love at first scalpel cut.
She usually processes her animal cadavers outdoors, and has what she calls “bone bins”, to help store and process her cadavers, into clean, skeletal remains.
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Humboldt County is a very cold and damp climate, so adopocare (when fats in a body turn into a sort of waxy substance that sticks to bones) is a common battle when it comes to bone processing. While working with a creature that is no longer alive, you have to have a strong stomach for the smell.
How do you practice Witchcraft? Do you cast spells for example?
“Heh, well… It’s not always what people think it is and yet it is at the same time. I know practitioners who do rituals and create altar spaces to help will their own goals into existence for example, but I think that energy work looks and behaves differently for each individual who practices their craft. I’ll be honest- sometimes I find it hard to consider what I practice as “Witchcraft” since I have an ongoing struggle with staples of the witch movement such as the more rigid and oftentimes misogynistic ideas brought on by Anton LaVey.
I know a lot of people who practice can easily agree with that sentiment and there are other staples of Witchcraft and magic who have had very questionable ideals and motives. I’m proud to notice that folks who do practice energy work don’t allow disagreeable practitioners to paint their credibility and will still proudly call themselves “Witch”.
Tell me about the use of salt and warding off spirits?
I had trouble sleeping in my new home here in the East Bay. There was something or perhaps even many energies lurking about who were not keen on letting me rest. In this case I couldn’t really tell what it wanted or if it’s just curious or it’s just focusing on something that is also new and foreign in its home. Luckily it’s never done harm, and I think we’re starting to coexist a bit better now that it’s been some time.
How do you know it’s there?
You know how you can feel the energy of someone when they are staring at you when your back is turned? It’s like that. Other times it can be a sound or disembodied voice, a flicker of light, or in the most intense case: You can have an episode of sleep paralysis where something reveals itself when you are in a specific dream state. Anyone who has had this happen to them can attest to how it feels to have something visit during an episode of sleep paralysis- there is nothing like it.
So why the salt?
Salt is revered as a universal purifier and protective element. One thing I have been delving into that is never ending is alchemical magic and calling certain elements into a spell, or even a work of art to sell, can really lend it power and connection to the profound. There have been times I’ve used salt with tea and coffee watercolor elements in the art I create to emphasize this- Plus the effect is just so dang pretty!
How do you incorporate symbology/symbols in your art & jewelry?
Some imagery I use can be easily identified from media like fairytales and mythology. For example, snakes evoke Lilith vibes while incorporating a rosary of garnets evokes Persephone. I love to use mirrors in my art and jewelry work since it brings the viewer into the art they are gazing at. The designs I create are intentional with a certain number of beads, chain links, rows, etc. utilizing numerology and numbers of the Major Arcana in Tarot. Color and shape also hold a specific meaning and purpose; reds for fire or spirit and blues for water and emotion. If you look, and know how to look, symbolism and the story I want to tell can be found there.
Lauren’s Store Link: www.altaregodesigns.com
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What is “goth culture”:
Goth culture is more than just the music, it’s a movement. Goth is a form of activism, bringing alternative thoughts on darker, more taboo subjects into the mainstream, advocating for things like better sex and death education and human rights. The new generation seems to focus on the music or fashion culture, and less about the fringe beliefs, but let me tell you I meet far more gothic-minded individuals outside of the leather and eyeliner than with. It’s not about appearances, like everything it’s about heart and actions.
I believe in bringing light to darker-themed subjects, discussing death practices- We should have options, people! We should be able to have the freedom to make informed decisions about our own aftercare. Folks should be able to have their tattoos cut and stretched post-mortem if they wish (for example). It’s our own meat sack, so why shouldn’t we have pre and post-mortem corpse rights?
Art of Aftercare
It starts with simply having spaces to talk about death and the exploration of what one wants for themselves and their remaining family and friends-made-family once they are gone. When someone you love dies, doesn’t it seem better to have that piece of mind and know those you love have space to mourn? Folks don’t have to worry about what the deceased person would have wanted and everyone has the freed space to grieve and mourn. Funerals and graveyards are for the living. They’re not for the dead, they’re for the grieving people, and since there are many deceased “created” each day, so too should there be as many death aftercare options.
Since I’m fairly new to the area I’m open for suggestions! From good, affordable food to BDSM/dungeons and events for kink and fetish to subculture movements and art activism and collaborations that I can enrich and join forces with. I’m here for it all!
Mendocino County has a lot of history, and people feel very drawn to the area. I feel very fortunate to have gone to Mendo High. As far as “haunted”? I will say Mendo definitely has an energy that is both calming and healing for anyone who finds themselves in the little village surrounded on each side by cemeteries full of crumbling 1800s tombstones.
Absolutely! As humans and artists, I deeply enjoy my fellows that lurk at The Menagerie events. Some favorite artist spotlights are Gashly Tentacles, Mon Cheri and Minerva Press, and my favorite local scent makers are Mary Syring and Penny Black Emporium.
Community is everything, and one success is everyone’s success, especially in dark artist subculture movements.
If there are any darker-themed artist groups, movements or communities who may be reading, please get in touch~ I’d love to meet you!