Miller Opie’s eyes flickered over photos of a damaged jaw bone. With flesh stretched back, bone and muscle exposed, the images were graphic. Still, Opie couldn’t look away.
It’s no wonder the pictures struck a chord — they were taken during Opie’s own surgery, which took place at a teaching hospital. “It was kind of gross and terrible,” Opie said of the images. “But it’s also really liberating to be able to see what was done to you.”
In 2009, Opie learned that benign tumors were destroying the area around her jaw. The bone couldn’t be salvaged, so she endured 3½ years of reconstructive surgeries. She describes her various surgeons as “cowboys” attempting unconventional procedures for the sake of their patient. The culmination? A metal plate now affixes part of her fibula to her face, preserving her jaw.
“The surgery was way more than just saving my face,” Opie said by phone. "It became part of my identity.”
The photos inspired Opie to respond to her experience with art, juxtaposing natural materials with industrial elements to reflect mortality, beauty, and fragility. Her “Deconstruction/Reconstruction” sculpture series utilizes found or gifted animal bones. “It was very unintentional,” Opie said of her first bone sculpture, completed in 2013. “But it was very much about working out what had happened to me.”
Growing up in Charlotte, N.C., Opie and her family traveled to Charleston every year for a beach vacation. Opie recalled searching for shells with her mother and credited these trips with fueling her lifelong passion for collecting natural materials. “I had all these really cool things I’d been hauling around for a million years and I finally had something to do with them,” said Opie, who put some of her old finds to use for the “Deconstruction/Reconstruction” series.
A graduate of both Rhode Island School of Design and North Carolina’s Penland School of Craft, the sculptor studied jewelry construction and enameling in the late 1980s and early ’90s, perfecting skills she still employs. Though she always had an affinity for making art, Opie spent much of her post-grad life focusing on other professional prospects. She worked in interior design for years, neglecting the part of her that felt compelled to create.
But that changed after her jaw reconstruction. “One day I woke up like ‘I need to start making something or I’m going to freak out,’” Opie said. “Even if it’s just pillows for the sofa.”
Having lived in San Francisco and Chicago, Opie and her husband wanted to return to New England. They hoped to live near Opie’s sister, Nancy Matthews, who works as a carpenter in Shutesbury, Mass. When Opie decided to get into sculpture, Matthews offered to build a workspace on her property.
Then another health emergency struck, just as construction got underway. Matthews was diagnosed with cancer. Opie stayed with her through surgeries and chemotherapy. “We gained this new perspective on life,” Opie said. “Life is fleeting and we can’t mess around. We need to follow our dreams and hearts and do the things we want to do.”
Building the studio recommenced just as soon as Matthews recovered her health. The space was originally designated to be a weekend studio, a place where Opie could flex her creative muscles when not working. The sisters gave the studio its finishing touches one weekend in October 2018. Opie went to work the following Monday to find she had been laid off.
“I realized I didn’t want to get a real job again,” Opie said. “I didn’t want to use my creativity for somebody else. It took me a few months to work that through, while, of course, my sister was standing there going, ‘Make art. Make art. Make art.’ And finally a few months later, I did.”
Opie now works as a full-time artist. She joined the Sculptor’s Guild in New York City and has become an annex member of Boston’s Fountain Street Gallery, where she just wrapped up showing some of her “Deconstruction/Reconstruction” pieces. She exhibited in 10 shows during the past year.
Opie keeps scouring the woods behind her Shutesbury studio, looking for raw material for new “Deconstruction/Reconstruction” works. Matthews recently put out the call to some hunter friends as well, and deer carcasses started arriving almost instantly at Opie’s door.
“At the end of each day, I’d fill up a bucket of the meat and take it out back into the forest, about a half-mile back, and leave this offering for the coyotes and crows, like a sacrifice in the middle of the woods,” Opie said. “Everyday I’d come back and it would have been licked clean.”
Then Opie gets to work cleaning the bones, something she likened to making stew: First, they are boiled for days, removing any remaining meat. Then they are soaked in peroxide for a few hours, drawing out leftover fat and bringing out their white color.
As for her studio — dubbed “Rumpus Studio” because it’s a space to make a mess — Opie is working on implementing a micro-residency program for other creators. The studio and its surrounding landscape has been such an inspiration for her, and she hopes to give visitors a similar experience. “It’s a special place,” Opie said. “I want to be able to share that with friends, at least to start, and certainly with artists as well.”
Grace Griffin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @GraceMGriffin.