Emma Witter on Bone

Mater speaks to artist Emma Witter about bone: sculpting with it, what it's made from, and how to prepare it

Please tell me a bit about you and your work

I’m a London-based artist creating intricate sculptural works and sculpture-based photography using ephemeral biomass, such as oyster shells and egg shells. Using a variety of processes, I elevate these traditionally non-art materials and question our perception of luxury. Through exploring food industry by-products I’ve become particularly intrigued with the generous and versatile properties of animal bone, as well as its rich history in art and design. My work in bone highlight’s its strength, beauty and wide availability as an industrial byproduct.

What is bone?

Bone is essentially made up in fairly equal parts of fat and mineral, and is a living, growing tissue. Its collagen is a protein that provides a soft framework, and calcium phosphate adds strength and hardens it. This combination of collagen and calcium makes bones incredibly strong and yet flexible enough to withstand stress. To prepare the bones for my work, I remove the collagen to leave the mineral. Bleaching the bones is the simple decalcifying process which can also be achieved using a kiln at extremely high heat. Likewise you can do the reverse and remove the mineral from bones using vinegar, which turns them into a bendy, rubbery texture.

Where do you find your materials?

All of my material is waste from the food industry. I started out holding onto bone left from my own cooking and dinners with friends and experimenting with how to preserve them as I thought they were so beautiful. Like oxtail for example or turkey vertebrae, as they are so naturally floral in form. My friends and family got to know the drill and started passing their bones down the table to me at events, and saving their Christmas carcasses. Then I started collecting bone directly from butchers and chefs and it really opened my eyes about the sheer amount of bone, amongst other byproducts, that need to be dealt with.

Where is bone used as an ingredient in ways we might not know about?

I think a lot of people don’t realise how much bone is used all around us in our domestic lives. I’ve often found they are surprised to learn that bone china is indeed made with bone ash. Most of our wine is filtered through bone charcoal, as well as sugar, and tattoo ink has been created using animal bone and a means for our skin to accept it. Bone is ground to make fertiliser, crushed to produce oil for soaps and sweets, and boiled down to make glue. This glue was traditionally used for cabinet making. Bone ash is mixed into a solution that when sprayed onto metal creates an incredibly tough protective layer. It’s even used in space ships as it can withstand immense levels of heat during the launch.

In the world of technology and medicine, I am thrilled to be in conversation with American Bio-Engineer, Dr Michelle Oyen. Dr Oyen specialises in the bio-mimicry of natural materials like bone and egg shell, growing them in her lab in essentially ambient conditions. These materials can have medical applications, such as replacing the metal and plastic used for new hip and knee joints. Dr Oyen has even bigger ideas, and describes in an interview for The University of Cambridge that “..Materials inspired by bone and eggshell are really good structural materials: why limit them to medicine? We can make bone-like material now, but only in lab quantities. It would take a big company to scale it up. Natural materials are really interesting. We build things out of steel and concrete now, but before we started getting the idea to do that, we built things with whatever was around us – wood or stone. People don’t really appreciate what impact this could have on global warming..”

Has working with bone affected your perception of mortality?

No, I have to say it’s quite far removed from ideas about death. Perhaps my familiarity with the material keeps me from this, and also the cleaning and preparatory process before creating the sculptures, takes the view of bone away from the body or corpse and further towards a simple material or ingredient, more scientific and less emotionally loaded. When I have explored feelings of grief or longing I’ve used fleeting materials such as flowers or more transient food matter. Bones last for millennia. Along with teeth they are these seemingly indestructible souvenirs of our time on earth, and so I associate bones more with life, strength and permanence.