Miller Opie’s goal isn’t to make you squeamish. But she won’t hold it against you if her bone art makes you a little uncomfortable.
To Opie, bones are inherently interesting and beautiful, fanning out and interconnecting in spellbinding ways. Her fascination and lately discovered art began with the discovery, of sorts, of her own bones. “I hope I’m not grossing you out,” says the Norwalk resident, telling the story of how benign tumors led her to have her jaw reconstructed as an adult. It was a three-year process that began with an initial surgery in 2009. 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 says. “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,” recalls Opie, a Rhode Island School of Design graduate whose personal focus had been on jewelry design and who, over the years, collected scavenged “treasures” like shells and bones. “It just struck me that I wanted to cut the bones up with a handsaw. I just started to cut things up and put them back together. I realized what it was after I did it.”
That 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. Many bony works have followed, and last fall 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. As a reward, she exhibited two bone sculptures at Silvermine this spring.
The smaller of the two, titled Jete after the ballet leap, also incorporated moose bone. This time, Opie 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. Larger, heavier and more unsettling is Opie’s Adaptation, a nearly 5-foot-long spinal column suspended from the wall. Almost pure white, it looks like the intact, sun-bleached backbone of a single animal. But it is actually an amalgam of vertebrae from three deer and a calf.
As her first vertebrae sculpture, Opie wanted Adaptation to be recognizable, but not classifiable. “I didn’t want to rebuild a deer,” she says. “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.”
In the two years since she made Adaptation, Opie has done a series of vertebrae sculptures. They may not shape shift, but they manage to look like primordial life forms one moment and giant insect exoskeletons the next.
Working with bone is “similar to making jewelry,” Opie says. “It’s about scale. You grind and sand. But bone has a warmth 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.”
Opie grew up in North Carolina, her mother a fabric artist. In 2013, lured by a job at Ethan Allen Interiors in Danbury, she moved to Norwalk with her husband, David, an author/illustrator and 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 in Shutesbury, Massachusetts. 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.”
See more of Opie’s art at milleropie.com