It’s not every day that you find a mummified cat, coffin shelves or skull art all in one store.
And for those whose cup of tea it is, Victoria’s Little Shop of Strange is the perfect brew – a trove of oddities and eclectic local art sure to light up the eyes of those looking for something different.
“It really is a special place, this shop. It’s a hub for people who are strange and unusual,” said Michelle Potentier, owner and artist.
The shop caught Potentier’s eye, who has been “doing art since she was five,” when the original owner Sylvery Gray was renting out the upper loft to artists. It was too expensive for Potentier at the time, but through getting to know Gray she soon became a featured artist in the shop and then started volunteering there.
Gray confided in Potentier one day that she was burning out and thinking of selling the store.
“Out my mouth comes, ‘I think I want to buy your store,’” Potentier said.
“She [Gray] said, I really want you to buy the store because whoever buys the store has to make art themselves. Because she made the skull art, dream catchers, everything. Profit-wise, to keep the store more afloat, you have to produce a lot.”
“I took over doing a lot of the art that she did. I was an artist before, but I had never touched dead things, never made skull art, collect specimens or any kind of goth art at all,” said Potentier.
But as a versatile artist– who makes everything from jewelry to paintings in oil, watercolour, acrylic, head pieces for festivals, costumes, dream catchers and prints – Potentier embraced it, taking over the shop in 2017. Now the store is filled with her pieces, ranging from skull art to dream catchers, fantasy paintings, festival costumes and hand-painted mushroom patches.
“I really like it. I feel like the skull art is like flower arranging to me. The wet specimens at first kind of creeped me out, but I don’t mind it. I kind of draw the line at the taxidermy, I haven’t quite gotten used to that. I host the classes, but I do not teach the classes,” she said.
Potentier refers to a glass case against the wall full of little dead animals (frogs, fish, bugs and even an iguana) in jars and beakers, which could be viewed as some as morbid but there is a scientific – and artistic – fascination about them, especially for people who like to “carry different species” or “collect.”
Some specimens are put through a chemical bath that makes the flesh clear so you can see through them, and then injected with dyes to highlight hard and soft tissues, creating a dynamic effect.
Potentier, now 50, said taking over the store was a chance she took that brought her artistic career from mainly markets and consignment stores to an entirely new level.
“This was a huge thing about getting me out, out, out there. Like, there’s thousands of pieces of my art out there now.”
It’s not just Potentier who has found an artistic home and exposure in the store. Little Shop of Strange supports local creative and alternative communities and features over 100 local artists, including best-sellers Linda Heslop, who makes west coast art, Jessie Beauvilliers (“Pixie Jessie”), who makes pointillism cards and Mitch Clarke, who does ornate bejewelled 3-D art.
“There’s so much corporate stuff out there and you never know what you’re going to see here. It’s reliant on what people happen to pop in and give me, so I think they just like it ‘cause it’s unique and they’re hard to find things. Most things in here are one of a kind.”
Due to the store’s location at 103-560 Johnson St. in Market Square, Potentier said it also draws in a lot of tourists.
“They don’t [always] know what they’re walking into.”
Other customers include festival-goers, teens, creatives, but Potentier said it has something for “everyone.”
“Some of my people who really love our store are ladies in their 80s because I custom made them broaches three years ago.”
In all its wonderful strangeness, the store also offers a space where some people really feel like they can be themselves.
“A lot of teens or younger people feel that when they come into the store, they feel comfortable to be themselves and just last week, someone told me ‘I just feel like home coming in here’.”