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Feature: Q&A with Alternative Limb Project’s Sophie de Oliveira Barata


Viktoria Modesta and her "Stereo Leg" designed by  Alternative Limb Project. Photography by Rosemary Williams

Viktoria Modesta and her “Stereo Leg” designed by Alternative Limb Project. Photography by Rosemary Williams.

 

 

Snow Queens and Feathered Warriors:

In conversation with Alternative Limb Project’s Sophie de Oliveira Barata

 

By: Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé

Ottawa, Canada

 

Sophie de Oliveira Barata is reimagining the human body, limb by limb.

 

She is the founder of the Alternative Limb Project, where she works closely with amputees to create surreal and glamorous prosthetic limbs that “can help to break down social barriers, and delight the eye.”

 

Sophie de Olivera from Alternative Limb Project

Sophie de Oliveira Barata from Alternative Limb Project

 

Sophie de Oliveira Barata has sculpted arms and legs that have given new life to bodies severed from limbs: for Grace, a gleaming feathered armour; for Ryan, a wounded warrior, a deconstructed leg with exposing flesh, muscle, and bone; for Jo-Jo, a caduceus threaded with a coiled python.

 

Jo-Jo Cranfield wearing the "Snake Arm" designed by Sophie de Olivera Barata of Alternative Limb Project

Jo-Jo Cranfield wearing the “Snake Arm”

 

And for model Viktoria Modesta, a perch of sparkling Swarovski ice and snow from which she, as the London Paralympics’ Snow Queen, could take flight.

 

"Crystallized Leg" created by The Alternative Limbs Project and designer Sophie de Oliveira

“Crystallized Leg” photography by Omkaar Kotedia

 

"Crystallized Leg" designed by Sophie de Olivera of The Alternative Limbs Project. Photography by Omkaar Kotedia

Closeup of the “Crystallized Leg” designed by Sophie de Oliveira Barata of  Alternative Limb Project. Photography by Omkaar Kotedia.

 

Modesta is both muse and creative sounding board to de Oliveira Barata. “My relationship with Sophie is very much based on both of us sharing the idea that artificial limbs should be an improvement and a statement on the future of design and technology,” said Modesta in an interview with Ramp1885.  “We have both encouraged each other throughout the time we’ve been working together on various projects and ideas that either her or I came across.”

 

Vicktoria Modesta wearing her "Stereo Leg" designed by Sophie de Olivera and The Alternative Limb Project.

Vicktoria Modesta wearing her “Stereo Leg”. Photography by Jon Enoch.

 

The Alternative Limb Project indulges in notions of fantasy, technology, and the bionic.  Modesta herself also wears the stereo leg, of which she writes: “the first time that I wore a limb that was so obviously BIONIC, it gave me a total sense of uniqueness and feeling of mutant human in the best way possible.”

But at their core, de Oliveira Barata’s limbs are also about fashion and personal style.  “This is a form of expression, an empowerment, a celebration,” she tells The New York Times.  “It’s their choice of how to complete their body — whether that means having a realistic match or something from an unexplored imagination.”

In an interview with Ramp1885, Sophie de Oliveira Barata talks about the genesis of the Alternative Limb Project, how her limbs help her clients re-imagine their bodies, and what part chocolate digestives play in her ‘creation ritual.’

 

From your TEDX talk at Brixton, UK, it seems that your client little Pollyanna was the spark that ignited what would become the Alternative Limb Project. What was that moment like, when it all clicked?

 

Pollyanna played a part in the formation of Alternative Limb Project, as well as other elements.

 

Pollyanna photographed by Nadav Kandar for The New York Times. Leg created by Sophie de Olivera and Alternative Limb Project.

Pollyanna photographed by Nadav Kandar for The New York Times.

 

During eight years of sculpting realistic limbs for another company I began experimenting with silicone and other materials in my spare time. Through these experimentations, I suddenly became aware of new and exciting possibilities when it came to limb making. I started working with Viktoria Modesta on some ideas and realised the potential for play. This time of experimentation coincided with meeting Pollyanna.  She wanted something a little different for her leg. Clearly coming to the clinic for a fancy leg was an exciting experience for her and it was through her experience that I realised how powerful ‘play’ is when it comes to rehabilitation.

 

In answer to your question: it was extremely liberating. I was on a cycling trip in Italy with my boy friend and we were discussing  time and what we would regret not doing if we died tomorrow  and how, isn’t it better to give it a go even if it meant failing? On my return I handed in my notice and set up Alternative Limb Project two weeks later.

 

What is your creative process like now? 

 

Some clients have a definite idea of what they want others require a little extraction. I untap their imagination by getting them to collect images that stimulate them visually.  It could be of anything from images of bird wings to car engines. I ask them to save these images in a folder, once there are about fifty images, I get an idea of patterns, whether its certain colours, materials, textures or just a mood, I can start to get a sense of what ticks their boxes. I will then take away this information and come up with some ideas then it’s very much back and forth until we have something that works on every level.

 

"Gadget Arm" designed by Sophie de Olivera Barata of Alternative Limb Project. Photographed by Omkaar Kotedia

“Gadget Arm” photographed by Omkaar Kotedia.

 

"Wooden Arm" with secret compartments, designed by Sophie de Oliveira Barata of Alternative Limb Project. Photographed by Delphine Doidy

“Wooden Arm” with secret compartments, designed by Sophie de Oliveira Barata of Alternative Limb Project. Photographed by Delphine Doidy.

 

Closeup of "Wooden Arm" designed by Sophie de Oliveira Barata of Alternative Limb Project. Photography by Delphine Doidy

Closeup of “Wooden Arm” designed by Sophie de Oliveira Barata of Alternative Limb Project. Photography by Delphine Doidy.

 

Who are your muses? Who – artists, models – light up your synapses?

 

I have to say I am not so much influenced or inspired by artists or models but more by materials, objects and the way they function, textures, moods, anything I come into contact with. Just a simple walk in the woods and I come back with loads of ideas. I am always thinking how the things I see could be used or influence a design for a limb. I guess I use this technique to pull out ideas from clients as well.

 

You have said that you’re going against the current of life-like limbs, with ‘a child-like reimagining of the limbs’ – what is it about that you makes you tick and gets you going?

 

There is a creative spirit that exists in everyone of us that quite often gets dampened I personally get excited by awakening and exciting people’s imaginations. It’s the world of possibility that really fires me up.

 

 

One of her clients, Kiera with her daughter, wearing the "Floral Leg" designed by Sophie de Oliveira Barata from Alternative Limb Project

One of her clients, Kiera with her daughter, wearing the “Floral Leg”.

 

 

How do you think your limbs have allowed your clients to re-imagine themselves?

 

Wearing an alternative limb opens a discussion for what is possible and inspires a positive conversation about what it is to be different. Clients have said that for once people are noticing what is there as opposed to what is missing. Recently we designed and made a cyborg inspired leg cover for a lady and already she has been asked to join a discussion panel at a cyborg convention. By expressing her interests she has gained entry into a world she is already fascinated in.

 

Every creator has a “creation ritual” – for example, I’ll clean aggressively; blast high energy music and sing my heart out; walk it out.  What’s your ritual?

 

I like to boil a full kettle, have the tea bags at the ready, get a full packet of chocolate digestives out, put on the radio and get on with it, if I am contemplating I will turn the radio off and it will just be the sound of the rolling machine, the ticking clock and my heavy breathing as I figure it out!

 

"Feather Armour" co-created by Sophie de Oliveira Barata and Rowena Vickerman for Alternative Limb Project. Photography by Nadav Kandar for The New York Times

“Feather Armour” co-created by Sophie de Oliveira Barata and Rowena Vickerman for Alternative Limb Project. Photography by Nadav Kandar for The New York Times.

 

Closeup of "Feathered Armour"

Closeup of “Feathered Armour”.

 

 

If you had to design for yourself, what would the limb look like?

 

Ooh!  It would be something humorous, beautiful and functional, perhaps an old fashion sweet dispenser leg or a beautiful cuckoo clock arm. Actually what I’d really like is an arm that has a drone inside that can fly out and take pictures from above and land back in my arm like a hawk.

 

Which design pushed you to your creative limits?

 

Probably Ryan Seary’s prosthetic as I was incorporating materials that I had never worked with before.  It was also quite complex to design – my brother helped me with the cad drawings for the muscle plates. The cover had to be removable and robust at the same time.

 

Ryan Seary in a "Removable Muscle Leg" designed by Sophie de Olivera and Alternative Limb Project. Photographed by Omkaar Kotedia

Ryan Seary in a “Removable Muscle Leg”. Photographed by Omkaar Kotedia.

 

Closeup of Ryan's "Removable Muscle Leg". Photographed Omkaar Kotedia

Closeup of Ryan’s “Removable Muscle Leg”. Photographed Omkaar Kotedia.

 

What have you learned from this experience?  And what’s next for you?

That it’s all possible, and if I personally can’t achieve it then I can easily find someone who can. I am now collaborating with other skilled people from other industries under Alternative Limb Project and its really exciting merging these skills to create even more diverse and exciting designs.

 

*Isabelle Bourgeault-Tassé is a writer, budding world traveler, and explorer of the ateliers of fashion artisans around the world. She tweets @Isabelle_BT and blogs at isabellebourgeault-tasse.tumblr.com.

 

 

Photography courtesy of Alternative Limb Project unless otherwise noted.  

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