By Chris Bergeron
Daily News Staff
October 12. 2014 8:20AM

The bone artist: Holliston woman crafts creepy but cool art and jewelry

HOLLISTON - Like peeling an orange, Laurel Cunningham-Hill plied open an owl pellet in her basement workshop, gently picking out the delicate rodent bones she uses to make her intriguing jewelry.

With the finesse of a surgeon, she carefully picked through the regurgitated plug of fur and bones, selecting a jagged mouse jaw, several vertebrae and delicate ribs she will transform into the distinctive earrings, broaches, decorative wristwatches and framed pieces she makes and sells called Capsulariums.

People bring me dead things all the time, said Cunningham-Hill in the Holliston house she shares with her husband and their teenage son. I've always made art since I was a child. This jewelry is just the latest incarnation.

To describe her jewelry, she totally made up the word Capsulariums from the Latin word for a small container and added the suffix -arium to suggest a device or place associated with a thing or function.

They're a little place where bones lie and tell a story, said Cunningham-Hill.

At first glance, her stately 1921 house in Holliston with its a stone porch and backyard swimming pool might be the setting for a John Updike novel about bored suburbanites. Instead there's a hint of Spooky World with a stuffed crow in cage by the doorbell, a bat hanging upside down in a glass case in the dining room and a human skeleton with a plastic skull resting in a black coffin in the living room.

Toto, I don't think we're in Pleasantville anymore.

Growing up in Milton, little Laurel began making art as a child. Her late father, Leonard Cunningham, was a talented painter who also invented children's toys and games he sold through a company he started. Her late mother, Dorothy Cunningham, was a talented crafter who directed the art program in the public school system.

After graduating from Massachusetts College of Art, she worked as an illustrator for area newspapers and underground publications, managed art galleries and worked as a costume designer and makeup artist in independent films and plays.

After seeing her son Zachary dissect owl pellets for a school science project, Cunningham-Hill saw creative possibilities in the bones' different shapes and decided to use her varied skills to make one-of-a-kind jewelry.

Fusing art and taxidermy, she's spent the last three years fashioning rodent bones into distinctive jewelry that embodies her fascination with natural forms, the steampunk aesthetic and folklore and myths from Arthurian tales to the supernatural.

The result is jewelry that is fascinating and just a tad creepy and lovely in a Morticia Addams sort of way.

After cleaning the animals' bones with Q-Tips and water, she fashions them into miniature figures that suggest magic totems from some remote culture.

Several are so small they have been set inside wristwatch cases beneath the glass crystals like skeletal haikus from the dark realm.

There's a long-legged spider with a tiny rodent skull for a body, a devil stag with five horns enclosed in a wristwatch crystal and a hand-holding skeletal couple that seem to have antlers called Till Death Do Us Part.

Over the last three years, Cunningham-Hill has shown and sold her work at steampunk festivals and sci-fi conventions like the National Halloween, Horror, Haunted House and Hearse Convention in Oaks, Pennsylvania, where she won an award for "Most original artistic creation," and at Lunacon 2014 in Rye Brook, New York, where she won the Judge's Choice award for her gorgeously gothic piece, Draco Volans of a flying dragon leaping at a butterfly.

Cunningham-Hill is one of the most popular artists whose works are available at Pandora's Box, a Milford curiosity shop that sells objects from the unusual to the odd, including mummified fetal pigs, sheep eyes and serial killer memorabilia.

Heather Bowser, who opened the store three years ago with her husband, Greg, said two pieces Cunningham-Hill just dropped off - a Demon Lord and a bat hovering over gravestones called Graveyard Visitor - sold within an hour of going on the shelf.

Customers really love the intricate detail and uniqueness of Laurel's art, she said. Nobody is making these tiny works of art like Laurel.

For Cunningham-Hill, the art of transforming rodent bones into original jewelry celebrates the ephemeral wonder of life blossoming from death.

I'm really happy that my customers find value and beauty in things that have been discarded, she said, and I've been able to bring them back to life in another form.

Chris Bergeron is a Daily News staff writer. News Staff Photo/Ken McGagh




Sunday Arts Feature, Metrowest Daily News, October 12, 2014, article by Chris Bergeron, photos by Ken McGagh.
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CAPSULARIUMS™ by Laurel Cunningham-Hill •

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