An artistic body of work's bone of contention

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, July 16, 2010

"That's the first question that everyone asks," says Benjamin Kelley. "Where I get the bones."

Kelley, 26, is talking about his conceptual art, which is made with bones. Human bones. Femurs, mostly. The bones are pulverized, the powder is mixed with resin, then the mixture is poured into molds of Cadillac hood ornaments, where it dries into a golden color. The resulting art, he says, represents the dehumanization of modern society and the way car culture impacts people's lives in Michigan, where Kelley is from. Conner Contemporary Art gallery in Washington is currently showing two of his pieces.

"The overall focus of my work is industry, and the automotive industry in particular," says Kelley. "Growing up in Mich -- "

But where do you get the bones?!

Kelley sighs: He gets them online, of course, where everybody gets everything.

The niche bone industry, in all its Gothic magnificence, does a small but steady trade. In the market for a coccyx, perhaps, or a tibia/fibula matching set? You might stop by -- or visit the Web sites of -- Skulls Unlimited International (based out of Oklahoma City), Maxilla & Mandible or Evolution (New York City), or the Bone Room (Berkeley, Calif.), whose site offers everything from assembled skeletons to pathological skulls displaying the effects of disease. One helpful prompt: "Need just a vertebra?"

A complete arm at the Bone Room will set you back around $650; individual carpals can be purchased for $10 a pop. Just now on eBay: a pearly cranium, sold with its own carrying case, current bid $779. The item description notes that the skull is "used." And how.

But bone dealers worry that theirs might be a dying business, threatened by foreign export laws. India and China used to be the main providers, but those supplies have all but disappeared. Dust to dust. Ashes to ashes.

Ostensibly, the bones are there for medical and dental schools -- professionals who have a vested interest in knowing how the hip bone's connected to the back bone.

However, "we sell more bones to artists than we do to science," says Ronald Cauble, who has been running the Bone Room since 1987. "One of our biggest sales was to Damien Hirst," he of the formaldehyde cows and diamond-encrusted platinum skull. Hirst bought that particular skull elsewhere, but Cauble says he sold the artist a whole pile of other bones. "They haven't become any art yet, to our knowledge," Cauble says. "He's renovating his castle, he's sawing things in half, he's doing sharks in formaldehyde. He's busy."

A mass shortage

People have been known to purchase bones for unusual reasons. Skulls Unlimited is one of the only facilities in the country to offer full cadaver preparation, meaning that it will transform fleshy bodies into glistening skeletons, with the assistance of dermestid beetles. This is usually for medical institutions, but owner Jay Villemarette says that he recently cleaned a man's skull to be returned to the man's widow. Villemarette says that requests like this are rare, but adds that simple bone purchases are such that "we can barely keep up with the demand."

However, he notes, the bone industry is at a critical point, due to a mass shortage. The United States, with its efficient burial practices, has never been a good skeleton provider: Americans who donate their bodies to science usually go through an accredited university, in order to prevent illegal use.

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