In the world of prosthetics, function wins over fashion almost 99 percent of the time — and with good reason. After all, when someone loses a body part, whether it’s through trauma or disease, it’s understandably important for them to replace the missing limb with an artificial one that meets the patient’s appearance and practical needs. However, what if the patient could achieve both of those objectives while also using the device as an opportunity to improve functionality and express their personality? For the average prosthetist, those are two completely foreign concepts. Thankfully, London sculptor Sophie de Oliveira Barata is far from your average prosthetist.
In fact, Sophie was lured into the field through her interest in special effects makeup. “I remember visiting some Roman ruins and seeing a live re-enactment of a battle,” recalls the director of The Alternative Limbs Project, which works alongside amputees to create real, surreal and unreal appendages. “There were so many people behind the scenes making prosthetic casualty wounds for the soldiers, and it looked like so much fun.”
In an exclusive interview with Not Impossible Now, Sophie discussed how she’s managed to revolutionize a discipline that’s been around since the 16 century.
NIN: When you were getting your upper education, how did you make the connection between hair/makeup and prosthetics?
Sophie de Oliveira Barata: I studied special effects makeup for performing arts at University of the Arts London and became particularly interested in prosthetics. Just before graduating, I was researching for possible avenues of work when a friend told me his brother makes prosthetic limbs for amputees. I said, “No way! That sounds fascinating. What’s his number?” I called his brother, Charlie, and quizzed him about his work. I remember Charlie saying, “Oh, it’s a bit boring and like factory work.”
Thank goodness I dismissed this comment and pursued my interest because the place I ended up working for eight years was quite the opposite. There was a small team of five of us, and I got to learn how to make all sort of body parts. (I even made a prosthetic bottom once.) Poor Charlie worked for a company where you would just make fingers for three years before getting promoted to the next level up — a partial hand.
How did you come up with the idea for the Alternative Limbs Project?
Sophie: My two worlds of medicine and fantasy began to merge when I met a 4-year-old named Pollyanna, a strong, energetic girl with a playful personality, who pulled you into a world of make-believe with her. Every year, I would make a realistic limb cover for her. As she grew, she would look forward to getting something different put on the leg — from images of pigs on bicycles eating ice creams to images of the family in colorful picture frames. I could see from a rehabilitation point of view how important this was for her: This enabled her to express a natural curiosity and playful attitude.
At the same time, I started experimenting in my own time with the materials and thought, “Wouldn’t it be great to create some really stunning alternative looking limb covers for those who would like to celebrate the space in a different way and perhaps see their limb as an accessory or walking piece of art?” So I set up the Alternative Limb Project.
When you design limbs, how do you balance fashion with function? Were there any particular cases where one almost overpowered the other?
Sophie: When making an alternative limb cover, I have to be mindful of various elements like: 1.) Interfering with the function of the limb, 2.) Making the right points accessible for maintenance of the limb structure, otherwise the cover needs to be made to be removable, 3.) Adding too much weight, and/or 4.) Considering the pitch and alignment of the toes when sculpting a realistic foot.
When it comes to your alternative limbs, where do you find your inspiration?
Sophie: The inspiration usually starts with the client. I ask them to collect around 50-100 images of anything that excites them, visually. They could be photos of a car part or close-up shots of fish scale. I can usually see a theme, whether it’s certain colors, patterns, materials, composition, subjects or just a mood. Then, I relay this information back to them, and we use that as a starting point to discuss possible ideas.
Technology seems to advance in the blink of an eye. That said, are there capabilities you have now that you didn’t have access to when you first started in the field. At the same time, are there specific technological advances that would help streamline or improve your process?
Sophie: 3-D printing is a great technology. It means the client can see designs before they are made and, with a click of a button, there it is. It gets exciting when a fusion of processes and materials are used in one limb, so I’m always open to new technologies and materials.
Looking back at your work over the years, what are three prostheses you’re most proud of?
Sophie: I always enjoy working with performing artist and singer Viktoria Modesta, who had an elected amputation below the knee after suffering many unsuccessful operations. Several limbs have been commissioned for her and all of them are very different. My favorites are: The encrusted crystal leg, the retro futuristic leg — which was part mechanical-looking, part-realistic — and a recent leg with chrome componentry and a white stylized bone that runs down the front. It lights up inside clear transparent plastic and is shaped to her leg.
I also loved making the leg for ex-military serviceman Ryan Seary, who lost his leg (above the knee) and arm (above the elbow) while serving in Afghanistan. This was quite surreal-looking with a realistic foot. Hairs were even taken from his neck to be used on his toes. On top of his foot, there was a graphic anatomical drawing of the bones and tendons. Then, the componentry was covered in silicone and made to look like a bone with clip-on colorful 3D-printed muscle plates.
I’m also enjoying a newer project, which involves turning a running blade into a catwalk piece using shards of Perspex that have been designed to form around the socket like a structured chandelier, reflecting all around her.
I see that you accept payment both individually and through medical insurance. How cooperative have health providers been in reimbursing wearers for your services?
Sophie: Realistic-looking limbs can be obtained in England from some centers on the NHS (National Health Service); however, the alternative ones are privately funded. One insurance firm funded an alternative limb cover for a client of mine, but usually insurance firms stipulate they will only fund someone for the prosthetics that makes life similar to before amputation. In other words, insurance tends to only pay for limbs that look like limbs! I find this ridiculous because the client doesn’t necessarily view their body in the same way anymore, so the situation is different.
Tell me a little about the documentary you have in the works? How can people get involved with funding the film?
Sophie: We are currently in the early stages of making a documentary filming the journey of three amputees and the process of three alternative limbs, specifically designed for them. The film will also include an element of neuro-scientific experiments. We have received an abundance of applications from amputees and are currently casting for the film and seeking funding. For more information on funding this film, please contact Noomi Spook.
Finally, what piece of advice would you give budding female innovators that has helped serve you best in your professional/personal journey?
Sophie: Trust your instincts, be yourself and work hard.
Learn more about Sophie de Oliveira Barata at The Alternative Limbs Project's website. Not Impossible Now's Women Innovators series is a monthly piece profiling the best in the business.
They are our heroes. They inspire possibility. They make all of us... better.
Top photo credit: Omkaar Kotedia. Photos of Sophie de Oliveira Barata by Elliot V. Kotek for NotImpossibleNow.com