Norwalk artist says she wants viewers to ask questions when viewing her bone sculptures

Norwalk artist Miller Opie creates bone sculptures.

Norwalk artist Miller Opie creates bone sculptures.

© Miller Opie / Contributed photo

Last fall, Norwalk artist Miller Opie won the Jacobson sculpture award at the Silvermine Art Center’s annual A-One show for a pair of pieces fashioned primarily from moose bone.

Yes, that’s right: moose, the antlered animal of northern forests.

Now, as a reward for winning the A-One prize, Opie has two more animal bone sculptures in Silvermine’s current new members’ show, running through March 13.

The smaller of the two, titled “Jete” after the ballet leap, also incorporates moose bone. This time, Opie has used a pair of surprisingly thin ribs. Set vertically and slightly bowed on a block of hemlock wood, the ribs suggest striding legs arrested in forward motion.

The impression is heightened by feathers streaming from the front leg of this bony dancer.

Larger, heavier and more unsettling is Opie’s “Adaptation,” a nearly 5-foot-long spinal column suspended from the gallery wall just behind “Jete.”

Almost pure white, it looks like the intact, sun-bleached backbone of a single animal. But “Adaptation” is actually an amalgam of vertebrae from three deer and a calf, according to the label.

It too is bowed outward into the gallery, as if whatever creature it once belonged to had arched its back, perhaps to stretch. The bowing creates a second purely artistic effect. Under the gallery lighting it casts twin shadows on the wall.

"Adaptation" is constructed from an amalgam of vertebrae from three deer and a calf.

"Adaptation" is constructed from an amalgam of vertebrae from three deer and a calf.

© Miller Opie / Contributed photo

“That’s something I discovered after the fact,” Opie said, soon after the exhibit opened. “It’s something I want to pursue. It’s beautiful to have something white cast shadow. It fleshes out the piece as more dimensional.”

As her first vertebrae sculpture, Opie wanted “Adaptation” to be recognizable, but not classifiable.

“I didn’t want to rebuild a deer,” she said. “I wanted people to question, What is this? Is it an animal? Is it an alien? I liked the idea to make it appear as if it was coming out of the wall.”

Both animal and alien work. In the two years since she made “Adaptation,” Opie has done a whole series of vertebrae sculptures. They may not shape shift, but they nevertheless manage to look like primordial life forms one moment and giant insect exoskeletons the next.

Last fall in a group exhibition at an abandoned brewery in Paterson, N.J., she put four vertebrae sculptures in ornate picture frames and mounted them on the factory’s exposed brick wall. The backbones didn’t fill the frames. Rather, in photographs, they appear to dangle from them, like invaders.

Opie understands the idea of working with bones can make people squeamish. But to her, bones are inherently fascinating and, though there is no reference to it in the Silvermine exhibit, her own bone is the inspiration for her lately discovered art.

“I hope I’m not grossing you out,” Opie said, telling how benign tumors, likely the result of her baby teeth failing to fall out on time, led her to have her jaw reconstructed as an adult.

It was a three-year process that began with an initial surgery in 2009 at a teaching hospital. She was working in Chicago then and remembers doctors standing behind her and her family when showing them photos of the surgery.

“They thought we would faint, but we didn’t because we were fascinated,” Opie said. “To be distanced from your mortality, or the fear of your mortality, maybe that was a seed of something, I don’t know.”

Her actual investigation of bone began once the jaw restoration was complete and while she was still in Chicago.

“I had to make something. I didn’t know what I was going to do,” recalled Opie, a 1990 Rhode Island School of Design graduate whose personal focus had been on jewelry design and who over the years scavenged all sorts of “treasures” like shells and bones.

“It just struck me that I wanted to cut the bones up with a handsaw,” she said. “It was just so unintentional. I’m not trying to sound dramatic. But it just happened. I just started to cut things up and put them back together. I realized what it was after I did it.”

Her first piece, titled “Reparation,” was jaw-like, constructed from a horse mandible, with agates for teeth and with one of her own baby teeth embedded in a sand dollar at the tip.

Working with bone is “similar to making jewelry,” she said. “It’s about scale. You grind and sand. But bone has a warmth (that) metal does not have.

“It can be colorful, too. Bones can pick up what they’ve been lying on, like the stain of grass or soil. Bone is also receptive to manipulation.”

She admits, however, “There is a gross factor sometimes. When I grind it, it can smell like a day at the dentist’s.”

Opie grew up in North Carolina, her mother a fabric artist. After graduating from RISD, she stayed in Providence to start her own jewelry design business. Then she held a series of corporate jobs.

One of the first was working as a designer for Martha Stewart, appearing on her television show when it was produced in Westport. In 2013, lured by a job at Ethan Allen Interiors in Danbury, she moved to Norwalk with her husband, David, an author/illustrator.

Miller Opie used one of her own baby teeth in her piece "Reparation."

Miller Opie used one of her own baby teeth in her piece "Reparation."

© Miller Opie / Contributed photo

They had met at RISD and he proved to be a fellow bone collector.

Opie did not devote herself to sculpture full time until after leaving Ethan Allen in 2018. She now divides her time between her home in Norwalk and a studio her sister built for her on property in Shutesbury, Ma. It is surrounded by forest, where her dogs sniff out bones. Hunters also bring her material.

“Hunting season just ended. I was just gifted a couple of deer carcasses. It’s a little out of hand right now. I’ve got an enormous stash of bones. I can just crank,” she said, meaning she’s eager to put the bones to use.

Opie calls her growing bone portfolio “Deconstruction/Reconstruction.” She has a second sculpture series called “Whir of Wings” that combines found feathers with woody roots and branches.

She cleans donated bone herself, outdoors in Shutesbury. She scrapes off remaining tissue, then boils the bone in a giant pot. A long soaking in peroxide follows, drawing out the fat and leaving the bone creamy white.

She said she’s more comfortable working with bone than cooking meals with meat.

She traces most of her bone sculptures back to her surgery. Of the two prize winners in the A-One show, one was an outlier in that it was inspired more by movement.

Titled “Au Repos,” it nevertheless used moose bone. Snowshoe shaped, it has a moose scapula in the center connected to a frame of moose ribs by copper wire. Feathers provide a mesh.

The other piece, titled “Chainged,” looks high tech by comparison. U-shaped, it has braided wire chain leading to cylinders of moose tibia that are in turn joined by copper fixtures.

Opie said “Chainged” impresses her as softer and less linear than her vertebrae sculptures.

“I like the way it drapes,” she said. “The chain felt almost like a marrow that belongs inside the bone.”

Joel Lang is a freelance writer.