There is a moment when each ultra-realistic prosthetic limb crafted by Sophie de Oliveira Barata transitions from a hunk of silicon into something more. “It happens around this point,” the artist explained, gesturing to a half-finished leg jutting mid-kick from her work bench. “I’ll know it’s happened when I handle a limb a bit roughly, and I find myself apologizing to it: ‘Oh, sorry!’”
It’s an easy mistake to make. With precision molding, hand-painted veins, and real human hairs, the limbs scattered around Sophie’s studio look uncannily real: legs on the verge of dancing and hands ready to burst into applause. With these prostheses, Sophie enables her customers to conceal their absences and blend in. But the artist also caters to another kind of clientele: amputees wanting to stand out. She works with these clients to imagine the missing parts of their bodies as fantastical works of art: an arm housing a motorized coiling snake, a jewel-studded leg with embedded stereo, a bird-wing arm with a metal hook for a talon. “Instead of seeing what’s missing,” she remarked, “you see what’s there.”
I met Sophie in her cozy London studio recently to discuss her work. After serving tea, the artist returned to the task of tenderly shaping a silicon calf as we spoke.
How did you get your start in prosthetics?
I actually started out in film, doing special effects make-up. Later, I heard about a job making realistic limbs for amputees. Every single limb was bespoke and made by hand. I worked for that company for years.
Where did the idea of making alternative limbs come from?
I was always experimenting in my spare time. Back then, I was going out quite a lot to all these crazy clubs where everyone would dress outrageously. I started sculpting costume pieces for myself.
Well, there was one that had a bra on one side and a lemon squeezer on the other, plus a collar made out of loads of colored pencils. Also, I had a bit of envy, you know. I thought, why should it just be amputees that have prostheses? So, I made a silicon copy of my own feet to wear as slippers. And it was brilliant walking down the street because I’d wear socks under them. I’d be curious to catch people’s faces as they passed me, thinking, “How does she have feet on the outside of her socks?”
Did you ever show your employers?
Certainly not! Some of the costumes were quite risqué. I’d wait until everyone went home and I’d stay at my workplace all night sculpting, just with this crazy passion to make something. Nobody knew that I stayed the night. Whenever the janitor would come round, I’d turn out all the lights and hide. In the morning I’d pretend to leave and come back again. I’d be exhausted but very happy!
How did you incorporate that kind of creativity into your prostheses?
I started working with a little girl who lost her leg. It was really tragic. She was in a pushchair with her mum and granny when a bus came onto the pavement. The grandma was killed against a wall, the mother had scarring, and the little girl had to have her leg amputated. I saw her every year, because she was growing and needed a new leg. Well, she wanted something a bit different on the leg every time. It started with these little pigs that were riding bicycles and eating ice creams. The next time she wanted a Christmas scene around the top of her leg. Then she wanted all these pictures of her family: her aunty there, and her little dog over there, and her mum, and her brother. I could see that every year she was getting really excited about coming in. And, it wasn’t something she had to do that other people didn’t, it was something she got to do that other people didn’t. It was a nice event for her psychologically. So, she was quite a good inspiration.
Do the clients always know what they want?