'Oddities' Star Ryan Matthew Cohn Wants Your Skulls
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because the stylishly macabre is eternal.
By Eugene S. Robinson
There are many things you might reasonably expect to get out of apple farmers from Woodstock, New York, but Ryan Matthew Cohn is among the least likely.
Slender, with a sleek, noirish style, Cohn is a collector cum artist and one of the stars of Oddities, a reality show airing on the Discovery Channel and the Science Channel. And the man himself, cut from a neogothic, Ripley’s Believe It or Not! kind of cloth, has nursed and nurtured along a lifelong artist’s affinity for all things strange, unusual and sepulchral.
“My mother is a seamstress, and my father was an apple farmer,” says the 34-year-old Cohn from his present digs in Brooklyn. “From a long line of apple farmers. I was a bit of a surprise.”
He developed a penchant for collecting things that used to be other, living things…
Often described as a cult classic and purveyor of a certain “freak chic,” Oddities is now in its fifth season. Nothing anyone expected for a show essentially about dead stuff. But “dead stuff is kind of cool now,” says New York interior designer Laura Zeitlin. “It’s a pretty potent reminder of how cool it is to not be dead.”
To hear Cohn tell it, his artistic sensibility was evident early on, from overflowing art supplies to winning art contests at age 11. In his family of two brothers and one sister, there was a distinct sense that he was, well, just a little different.
A kind of “different” that made manifest a near-obsessive focus on scouring the woods around the family farm looking for salamanders or “whatever else nature would bring us.” Like the skeletal remains of creatures that had once been alive in those woods. You see, he developed a penchant for collecting things that used to be other, living things, like parts of dead deer. And it was all about appreciating the aesthetic and educational value of that which would not be noticed by most.
Then, in his tender teens, a friend gave him a human skull. “They were throwing it out at her art class,” says Cohn. But since one person’s garbage is another’s treasure, for the maturing artist this gift cemented a teenage decision to go to college and study medical illustration.
That plan lasted about a week. Now it’s a family wound deep enough that, 15 years later, Cohn still “really can’t talk about it, and won’t.” So whether the broken plans included the family business or another line of study, Cohn doesn’t say — instead he talks about heeding Horace Greeley’s admonition and heading west.
By the time he’d wandered to Los Angeles, Cohn was playing guitar in Stalkers, a band with a sound like the Damned meets the Ramones. Music, however, never served his obsessions in the same way that collecting had, and months into his Left Coast sojourn, Cohn headed back to New York. Not to the apple orchard, but to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, where he found himself in desperate need of a hustle.
“I sold my skull.”
“No, the skull that my friend had given me, sadly enough,” Cohn says. “But I got $300 for it.”
He expanded his business to include museums, which recognized this stuff for what it often was: fine, high-end objets d’art.
Rent problems temporarily solved, a new field of play opened up for Cohn’s obsessions. He began to scour flea markets, antique and estate sales, and renovating medical facilities, looking for leftover or abandoned curios: skulls, formaldehyde jars of weird stuff, taxidermied animals. Which he would turn around and sell to tattoo parlors and antique stores, always keeping the best for himself. And thus was a professional buyer born.
“I’ve always had a weird skill,” Cohn says, modesty be damned, “of being interested in things right before they become cool. I mean, I’ve always been good at that.” With the age-old business plan of buying low and selling high, he expanded his business to include museums, which recognized this stuff for what it often was: fine, high-end objets d’art.
He began thinking of his finds as things that would and could be adorned — not just remnants of history, but as newly forged art. Which is to say, some of this stuff would make faboo things to wear and display.
So? He dove into a silversmith apprenticeship with one of Ralph Lauren’s first silversmiths, Arnold Goldstein, and soon gained the skills for crafting stands, mounts, the structures to support his Beauchene exploded skulls. He pushed on into art ancillaries: cufflinks, accessories, buckles and rings — stuff that would sell for way more than when he was peddling heads from tattoo parlor to tattoo parlor.
His steady spots at antique shops around the city eventually led him to become a buyer at Obscura Antiques & Oddities, where he and the owners came to the attention of the Discovery Channel. Teaming up with producers of a reality documentary that was a little offbeat … that’s when Cohn hit his stride.
“You know, my father was a very cultured guy and took me to a lot of museums when I was a kid, and I look at what I do from a curatorial point of view,” says Cohn.
Four years since its premiere, in 46-some-odd — and some very odd — shows, Cohn has hipped America to the subtle pleasures of mummified animals and, yes, skulls. Celebrities appear on the show in droves — everyone from Amy Sedaris and Chloë Sevigny to Dita Von Teese and Matthew Gray Gubler — seeking audiences with the always suit-wearing Cohn to get their hands on one-of-a-kind pieces.
Living now in a dream of a house that includes a museum space to display an expanding collection of odd antiques, Cohn seems, and we could be wrong here, almost at peace. “Well, I am getting married in October. On TV, for this special that has them coming in and quadrupling what we were going to pay for our wedding,” he says. So there is that.
He’s even made peace with his family over his very nontraditional, non-apple-orchard career turn. “Yeah, everything’s OK. And you know, I know some people might be weird about the skulls, but these were originally made to be educational and have nothing to do with spirits or anything like that. There are no spirits in my place.”