Salad Days Pins Are an Art History Enthusiast's Dream Come True

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When I spoke to Julia Carusillo, a Chicago-based illustrator and set-designer, she tells me about her latest Halloween costume. She had dressed up as a bloodied Anastasia Romanov, the youngest, ill-fated Grand Duchess of Imperial Russia. “No one knew what I was and I had to explain how the family died,” she laughs. “The bullets from the firing squad ricocheted off the Romanov children because they had sewn gems into their clothes!” It’s a niche costume, but for Carusillo it’s deeply on-brand.

Carusillo is the adult version of that one kid we all knew in elementary school who became wildly engrossed into in the lore of the ancient worlds and frankly never looked back. She’s a vocal history buff, one that doesn’t save her public adoration solely for socially-sanctioned holidays. She wears it daily, as the one-woman operation behind Salad Days Pins.

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like father like son

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In early 2016, Carusillo found herself frustrated in the Chicago Field Museum gift shop. “I was hoping and praying they would have the Funerary Mask of Agamemnon in a pin or jewelry, but they didn't have anything that was under $300,” she explains. “So I thought, 'Maybe I'll just do my own.'” Carusillo then embarked on what would become the first collection of Salad Days Pins. The inaugural collection, Art History 101, began with what Carusillo considers the introductory slides in a university art history course: the Capitoline Wolf, the Venus of Willendorf, the Kouros Boy and the Funerary Mask of Agamemnon.

She's since let her love of history and mythology run rampant, designing collections dedicated to ancient ruins, royal women with unique relations to power (it goes without saying that Anastasia is a featured monarch) and legendary beasts like Medusa. Carusillo's designs embody her personal philosophies, leaning toward historical icons who are often misunderstood and reclaiming their stories. With Medusa, Carusillo deviates from the way the fearsome, serpent-haired gorgon has often been chronicled; her stare may turn mortals to stone, but Carusillo's illustration evokes a sense of empathy that's more in alignment with the creature's modern status of a symbol of defiance against the male gaze.

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Gorgons is gods too

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Each Salad Days collection is curated like a college course, a cohesive theme with an official title that's probably on some professor's syllabus at this very moment. The designs are for those who did the reading in school—and in a market that's oversaturated with pop culture related merchandise, it's refreshing to find something that reflects one's sartorial and academic interests.

In collaboration with her sister, beauty writer Claire Carusillo, Salad Days Pins released the Sephora Hand, an enamel pin that celebrates the universal experience of trying on every shade of makeup one can fit on a human hand while shopping in the hallowed beauty supply chain. Half of all proceeds earned from the pin are pledged to the National Center for Transgender Equality before President Trump rescinded federal protections for transgender students. “I'm never trying to be non-partisan in my business,” Carusillo tells me.

It's an ethos that's compatible with her latest collection, the Introduction to Insular Architecture. Comprised of the Berlin Wall, Ishtar's Gate, the Great Wall of China and the Trojan Horse, the collection serves as commentary on how isolationism has become the an unsettling, but very real trend in today's foreign policy. Each of the walls is in itself an architectural wonder, but Carusillo hopes that their often blood-soaked histories can serve as a reminder of the fate that can be avoided when we take heed from the past. “I don't have a lot of money or power,” she says. “But I'm trying to use the little platform that I may have to talk about the things I care about.”

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Introduction to Insular Architecture. 5% of all proceeds benefit the ACLU. Available now

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Paste: Growing up, were you one of those kids who was obsessed with ancient cultures?

Julia Carusillo: Yes! I was really obsessed with all mythology growing up. Norse mythology was definitely a year-long phase. Egyptian was huge in middle school. All through high school and till this very day, I'm still obsessed with Roman and Greek mythology.

Paste: What is it about those that drew you?

Carusillo: I really love Roman since I took Latin in high school. I was really obsessed with the stories. Not just the heroism of it, but the idea of Roman pride and caring for your family. I thought it was so romantic, this idealized country and family love. I loved that and I still do. I don't know how I got into the other kinds of mythology, I feel like all kids get a cursory lesson when you're in grade school, but I just devoured everything I could.

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Paste: How did Salad Days Pins get its start?

Carusillo: I went to see 'The Greeks' exhibition at the Field Museum here in Chicago and when I got to the gift shop, I was hoping and praying they would have the Funerary Mask of Agamemnon in a pin or jewelry, but they didn't have anything that was under $300. So I thought, 'Maybe I'll just do my own.'

I'm a set-designer. That's my 'real' job and what I went to school for, but this is something where I could sort of explore my historical and art historical passions. When I'm working on a play or show, a lot of it is dictated by the script or the director. Here, I get to make my own narrative.

Paste: What is it about the specific eras of your pins that you wanted to bring to life?

Carusillo: My first collection was what I describe as the first four slides you see in art history class in college. It was just those for a while and they were doing really well. People were really into the Venus of Willendorf one, which helped me go off on exploring feminism's role in history and in art history because it's something I'm fascinated by. After that, I did my collection of royal women called Crown Jewels. I didn't want it to necessarily be princesses, so I chose people that I thought had an interesting relationship to power in their own regime. With each collection, I name it after the idea of a college course, so it's got a fake academic title.

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My baby hero

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Paste: You've talked about how Latin class and as well as Fellini films were formative experiences for you. What is it about them that made such an impression on you?

Carusillo: I think that part of it is that they're both Italian and I am too. I think I loved getting a sort of multiple perspectives on my own heritage. I went to art school for undergraduate and graduate school, so if I took a philosophy class, it was through the lens of art history. I took a Fellini course that was using Lacanian psychology and I was so in love with the look of his movies. It was part of the reason I went back to school for set design. They're also arguably kind of misogynistic is some ways, but so beautiful and full of magical imagery come to life through his set designers.

Paste: Tell me more about the Sephora Hand pin, because that in itself is really funny.

Carusillo: It's about how you you go to Sephora and you try on 800 swatches and they never and they never come off until three days later when you've taken multiple showers. Since my sister writes about beauty in a tongue-and-cheek way, we wanted to do that. Right when we came out with it was when transgender issues were coming to the forefront. Our best friend is non-binary trans, so we wanted to do something for them to show solidarity. We donate 50% of our Sephora Hand proceeds to the National Center for Transgender Equality. The pin is totally a non-sequitur with the stuff that I have, but I'm going to do more of them moving forward and call them “Study Breaks,” so the Sephora Hand turned out to be the first one.

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We want to stand in solidarity with our trans siblings today on this day of trans visibility and remind everyone that our country is built on equality, not hate and fear no matter how much the guy in charge seems to believe the opposite. We will always fight for the rights of our transgender friends and will always donate half our proceeds from our Sephora Hand pin to We want to extend a special moment of peace and remembrance to the trans POC unlawfully murdered this year alone- Jaquarrius Holland, Chyna Gibson, Ciara McElveen, Mesha Caldwell, Jamie Lee Wounded Arrow, Keke Collier, Jojo Striker, and Tiara Lashaytheboss Richmond. We have to find a way to make this pain stop. #blacklivesmatter #translivesmatter #poclivesmatter

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Paste: You recently released your Introduction to Insular Architecture collection. What inspired you to do so?

Carusillo: Over the past few months, I’ve been paying more attention to ways I can be more active against our current administration. I’m never trying to be non-partisan in my business. If people don’t like what I’m doing or where I’m donating proceeds, they don’t have to buy from me. But I thought I’d go a little bit more overt with this collection. Basically, the Introduction to Insular Architecture designs are all walls that have fallen throughout history and it’s a commentary on our proposed wall. I wanted to toe the line between how these are all masterpieces of architecture, but they didn’t really work and caused more turmoil. We’re donating 5% of proceeds to the ACLU. I don’t have a lot of money or power, but I’m trying to use the little platform that I may have to talk about the things I care about.

Layla Halabian is a Los Angeles-based writer who deeply identifies with Medusa. Follow her on Twitter.