The Art of Designer Artificial Limbs

Sophie de Oliveira Barata makes hyper-realistic prostheses as well as elaborate costume limbs that reflect the wearer's personality.
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Sophie de Oliveira Barata with one of her designer pieces. (Roc Morin)

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.

Omkaar Kotedia

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.

Like what?

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.

Rosemary Williams

Do the clients always know what they want?

Some of them have definite ideas of what they want. A lot of the men want to look like some kind of superhero—loads of Iron Man requests. Other people don’t know what they want at all and need you to help them pull the information out. That’s really good fun. I usually tell them to go on the Internet and just search for images that speak to them and save them in a folder. When they’ve got, say a hundred images, we’ll be able to see a pattern as to what they’re interested in—whether it’s color or composition or materials or an atmosphere—there’ll be something, and then you’ll talk that through together.

Being so focused on other people’s limbs all the time, I wonder, what’s your relationship with your own limbs like?

Well, it’s interesting, I feel differently about them than I did when I was younger. With my feet for example, since I started making limbs, I really like them from an artistic perspective. I’ve got loads of little thread veins. I get really excited if an older person comes in for a realistic limb, because it just means more detail. There’s more personality there. Of course, not everybody feels that way. I had a woman come over the other day to watch me sculpt a leg for her. Originally, all she wanted was a match of her existing leg, but when I gave her the opportunity for feedback, she said “I don’t want the yellow on the toenails, and maybe not so many veins.” And it’s like, “Hold on a minute, it’s not going to look anything like the other one!”

You mentioned that you used to feel differently about your limbs. How did you feel about them when you were a kid, for example?

It’s funny you mention that. You know how vertigo is the fear of wanting to jump off things? Well, sometimes, actually, because my hands mean so much to me, if [I saw] something like a big churning thing, I’d be like, “Oh, God, keep it away! I might put my hand in there!” And, it was just the idea of having control over your destiny. That if I put my hand in there, it would ruin everything, but for that split second I’d have control over the whole of my destiny and that would be quite an empowering thing. Of course, that would destroy my chances of being creative with my hands, so I chose not to.

Omkaar Kotedia

Do you think that fascination had anything to do with the profession you’ve chosen?

Maybe! Of course, I don’t have that impulse anymore. I feel like I’ve gotten a lot simpler as I’ve gotten older, but life’s a lot easier as a result of it.

Have you thought about what kind of limbs you’d make for yourself if you were an amputee?

Maybe super strong arms or something…

What would you do with them?

I don’t know! Hmm… well, I always thought it would be quite sweet to have a sweet dispenser leg—maybe a bubble gum machine with lovely metalwork. You’d press a button and a gumball would spiral down. The kids would all crowd around your leg, grab the sweets, and just take off. Ideally, I’d like to have a bunch of limbs, all interchangeable, each one reflecting a different part of myself back at me. 

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Roc Morin is a journalist based in New York and the author of And, a book of short stories.

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