December 12, 2013

University of Maine at Farmington students create prosthetics as artwork

Instead of replacing a missing body part, the pieces replace something that was never lost to overcome a limitation of the human body.

By Kaitlin Schroeder
Staff Writer

FARMINGTON — A group of students rethought their concepts of limitations and abilities this week as part of a sculpture project at the University of Maine at Farmington.

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Wings: Maeve-Wolf O’Reiley, 21, a sculpture student at the University of Maine at Farmington, tries on her prosthetic creation titled “Flights of Fantasy” during a set-up Wednesday for the campus exhibition. O’Reiley used more than 700 feathers and spent more than two weeks creating the winged prosthesis.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

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PROSTHESIS ART: Maeve-Wolf O’Reiley, center, and Jill Gingras, left, both sculpture students at the University of Maine at Farmington, prepare the Emery Arts Center for the prosthesis project on Wednesday. Students were challenged to create a prosthesis to overcome their own personal limitations.

Staff photo by Michael G. Seamans

Assistant Professor Jesse Potts said the students were each asked to find a limitation of their body and create a wearable contraption, or prosthetic, that would meet that need. The projects from the Sculpture 1 students ranged from practical to “beautifully absurd,” Potts said.

The students will be wearing their sculptures at a one-day Prosthesis Project show and reception at the Flex Space Gallery in the UMF Emery Community Arts Center. The show, featuring a closing reception, is scheduled for 5 to 8 on Thursday.

Within the Flex Space Gallery, named for its versatility, the students created a huge plastic globe as a flexible gallery for the show from connected plastic sheets inflated by an air blower.

The UMF students aren’t the first artists to use prosthetics as a genre, and in recent years artists such as Neil Harbisson, who created cyborglike extensions of himself; Eduardo Kac, who approached microchips as human prostheses; and Azra Aksmija, who created a wearable mosque, have been recognized for their work with prosthetics as sculpture.

Meanwhile, artists such as London-based consultant Sophie de Oliveira Barata have taken prosthetics beyond functionality by designing artistic prosthetics that, according to her webpage, “will reflect your interests and personality” and can come with gadgets, ornamental feathers or tattoos.

Potts said for his students, instead of using prosthetics to replace a missing body part, they are supplementing some function that was never there.

“We’re using the term prosthetic in that it’s an attachment to the body. While prosthetics are traditionally to replace something that’s lost, like a limb, this art was to add on to the body to overcome a limitation,” he said.

Maeve-Wolf O’Reiley, a junior-year sculpture student, created a set of colorful wings as her prosthetic.

She said the sculpture started with the ideas of creating wings to overcome her inability to fly, and said as she made it she realized the other functions wings could serve

“I started thinking about all the other uses, like plumage and adornment and expression,” she said.

“They can serve all sorts of purposes, like staying dry, attracting mates, flight,” Potts added.

It took her more than two weeks to creat the prosthesis, titled “Flights of Fantasy.” It has more than 700 feathers, though she added it wasn’t until she was finishing the project that she realized the feathers were the same color her hair has been dyed over the years.

“It was totally unintentional,” she said.

Senior David Carr created what he said were sensory microphones attached to his hands and feet so when he touched something, he heard it through earphones at a magnified volume. He said people can be limited by experiencing life in a limited way when they gloss over their surroundings.

“There are so many intricate details we don’t take in,” he said. “We don’t always realize we’re touching something, we’re leaning against something, we’re coming in contact with something.”

Some of the prosthetics, Potts said, let the wearer outperform people without the devices. Many of the projects were worn like a helmet or glasses and appeared inspired by Google Glass in the way they were designed for wearable computing and increasing sensory data.

One helmet came equipped with a camera that took a photo every time the wearer’s mouth opened, while another helmet came with mirrors to increase the angle of vision.

He said the students who were majoring in other disciplines helped particularly in a project such as this, which might require computer skills, construction skills and artistic vision.

“It’s an asset to have students who are there for a requirement, who are just dabbling,” he said. “There’s more to this art project than just the aesthetics,” he said.

Kaitlin Schroeder — 861-9252
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