The Bountiful Bell Jars of Panoply

By Joe Cadagin

Magazine Issue: Fall/Winter 2022

 
Seashells in bell jar
Seashells under a glass dome. Photo by: Hadara Greenbaum

Bell jars are everywhere you look in Panoply, Bill Fussner’s Toronto curiosity shop. Alongside mannequins, taxidermy birds, and other oddities, the vessels crowd the store’s shelves and line its narrow aisles like a parade of transparent mushrooms.


These domes—like miniature celestial firmaments—are peepholes into inward-expanding universes. Most of them house multiple identical specimens (brass curtain rings, chandelier crystals, metal drafting compasses) or diverse objects in the same category (seashells, sewing supplies, plastic farm animals). But no matter how many items are piled up in their cavities, the bell jars somehow seem sufficiently full, with just the right number of paint brushes or tubular lightbulbs.


Indeed, the store itself is awe-inspiring in its perfect abundance. Even if a few stray customers wander away with bizarre purchases (a walrus skull and a bouquet-waving automaton on the days I speak with Fussner), the collection remains perpetually complete, like the self-replenishing cornucopia that fed the infant Zeus.


“This gal came in and suggested that I had a ‘panoply’ of stuff,” the 74-year-old Fussner tells me when I ask about the name. “I didn’t know what the word meant, so I looked it up. It originally was associated with a full set of armour. I thought that was fitting.”


Glass is in no short supply at Fussner’s shop. Aside from all the bell jars, he runs a respected stained-glass studio, Solarium Design Group, Ltd., from the cavernous backrooms concealed behind a secret sliding door on the first floor of Panoply.


Fussner began amassing curios as window-dressing to complement the stained-glass wares in his showroom and his booth at the now-defunct Harbourfront Antique Market. “The intention was for people to see the glass in a situation that would make it more wonderful,” he explains. As the collection grew, Fussner’s employee sensed that his boss’s ploy was working too well. “I went on holiday one time,” says Fussner, “and he built a partition while I was gone and put all my stuff behind it, because he said, ‘When people come up here, they’re so distracted by everything that it’s hard to get them focused back on the glass.’”


The antiques followed Fussner into his current space at 489 Dupont, down the hill from Casa Loma, where they occupy a cozy ground-level room and a larger upstairs. But as soon as Fussner had removed the paper from the front window for the grand opening, COVID-19 struck. Even now, business has been slow, with only a handful of customers per week. Visits can be scheduled by appointment, or passersby can call the posted phone number for impromptu, open-sesame admission into Fussner’s cave of wonders.



Panoply feels less like a store than an eccentric museum, and Fussner will gladly act as your accommodating docent, “Most everything has a bit of story for me—my connection to it or why I enjoy it or appreciate it.”


As he shows me around, I notice certain recurring types of artifacts that must particularly impress him. For instance, there are dozens of strange boxes with stepped wood panels jutting out like minute Mayan temples. It’s called “tramp art,” Fussner informs me, and these pyramidal protrusions are the result of layering the recycled wood of old cigar boxes.


And then there’s all the hair—several shower drains’ worth, meticulously woven into individual blossoms and pinned onto canvases in ornate garlands and wreaths. “These were generally done by girls in Victorian times who let their hair grow quite long,” says Fussner. “They would make these little flowers and trade them with their girlfriends until they collected a bunch of them.”


“They weren’t made from dead people,” he assures me. Nevertheless, I spot a few locket-enclosed auburn locks, tagged “mourning brooches.” Elsewhere, I stumble on snapshots of WWI facial-reconstruction surgeries and memento mori photographs of dead children. The store’s darker items attracted the attention of Guillermo del Toro’s production team. A week before I interview Fussner, the crew rented a cartload of curios from Panoply for the macabre Mexican director’s latest Netflix series.


“Death was looked upon quite differently in Victorian times,” says Fussner. “Taking pictures of dead people and holding dead kids is seen as an unusual phenomenon now; but then, it was quite common,” he notes. “It was the only way that people had to remember somebody, because the opportunity for a photograph was rare.”


Panoply countertop with assorted items. Photo by: Joe Cadagin

Fussner assures me that he doesn’t harbour a morbid streak. Rather, he appreciates the poignant bygone attachments these keepsakes represent. Still, there’s no denying his humour has a wicked side. It occasionally emerges in his mischievous smile, but it’s more obvious in the contents of the collection itself.


There’s a French Revolution’s crop of severed heads strewn about Panoply, of all sizes and species. Blanched animal skulls grin down from every wall, decollated doll noggins stare blankly from every corner, and there are even a few human heads floating in formaldehyde (thankfully fakes—props from American Gods TV series). Under one of the ubiquitous bell jars is a rococo pair of ceramic lovers, their têtes lying at their own dainty feet. A pasted a label at the base states, “HEADS WILL ROLL.”


The knickknacks and bric-a-brac, which Fussner buys at antique markets and fairs rather than online, make up only half of his inventory. The other half might be categorized as “assemblage art”—arrangements of found objects that, together, constitute something midway between sculpture and display.


Inspired by the shadowboxes of American surrealist Joseph Cornell, Fussner guts old wooden cabinets and clocks, filling their compartments with all sorts of bits and bobs. He gets a kick out of setting up whimsical tableaux in these crevices: a taxidermy frog rides a plaster bobcat’s head like a horse, wielding a shoelace for reins; in another, a rubber lizard appears to be attacking a plastic baby in a pharmacist’s bottle.


The bountiful bell jars of Panoply largely fit into this assemblage-art category. In any other situation, their contents would be worthless paraphernalia. But once Fussner places them under glass, something magical occurs.


Part of this has to do with the historical and cultural significance of the jars themselves. First used during the Scientific Revolution as vacuum chambers in laboratory experiments, bell jars became a staple of decorative arts in the Victorian era, when they covered wax figurines and delicate dioramas of dried flowers and butterflies. The apparatus implies separation and self-containment, as well as protection for something fragile and valuable—like the Little Prince’s precious rose, safe beneath her garden cloche. The simple act of crystalline encasement bestows an aura of mystery on even the most commonplace sundries.


Flamingo gone through a blender under large glass dome. Photo by: Hadara Greenbaum

But as straightforward as it may seem to stick things behind glass, it takes someone with Fussner’s unique vocational background to do it with any finesse. His power to conjure the extraordinary through the act of display can be summed up in his favorite mantra: “It’s nothing ’til it’s something.” He builds or refurbishes the cases himself, often incorporating secret compartments into their designs.


More importantly, it’s Fussner’s keen eye that allows him to transmute the mundane into the miraculous. In his hands, shirt cuffs and collars become a flock of seagulls in flight; plastic screwdrivers become a tray of exotic beetles; a silk banister becomes a sleek black boa constrictor coiled beneath a bell jar.


Fussner’s secret ingredient, I suspect, is the genuine sense of connection he feels to the possessions of those long gone—a tenderness for these relics of the past. “I don’t have any trouble finding neat little things,” he says. “Sometimes you find things in a box with a bunch of stuff together. You almost hate separating them because they’ve been together for so long with each other. Sometimes in an old photograph album, I see a few pictures that might be of more interest to me than others. But to take those pictures out of that album—now you’ve changed the story!”


I discover just such a keep-’em-together assortment in a jewelry box. It feels like I’m looking into a Victorian gentleman’s junk drawer: a gold mechanical pencil, a monographed mustache comb (“PMU”), a tiny copper shoe, and an enameled tie clasp. They’re all lovingly snuggled together on velvet below the beveled-glass lid—as they probably have been for decades. “VARIOUS DELIGHTFUL ITEMS,” reads the tag. It may as well be the name of the store.


Joe Cadagin is an American musicologist and a regular contributor to Opera News.