Sunday, September 27, 2009. Chicago, Illinois.
A last supper was being had by Miller Opie and company at Joe’s Seafood. Her mother and sister had flown out a couple days prior. The meal was big and proper, featuring bottles of wine and then some. After all, the surgery was only two days away.
Tuesday, September 29, 2009. 6:00am. Loyola University Medical Center.
The sky was overcast and the air felt a moist fifty-two degrees. Miller, along with her mother, husband and sister, entered the old dark place that would soon, to their disfavor, become a temporary residence. It was an ungodly hour of the morning and the lights were still off in the outdated hospital ward. Her own prep for the surgery had been much like that of a plane ride—Miller had written down a list onto paper: phone numbers, directions to the hospital, house-sitting instructions. The sheet of things had been handed to close friends and relatives. This was going to be a long trip. 12 hours, to be exact.
Right before 6:30am, the time the surgery was scheduled to begin, Miller was pulled from the gloomy waiting room they had all been anxiously sitting in. She changed from her pedestrian outfit into a drafty hospital gown. Almost immediately, she felt cold. With the help of a few blankets, the chill left as quickly as it had come. Meanwhile, a nurse and an anesthesiologist explained what was about to happen. Miller was nervous but hopeful.
The tumors that had ultimately landed Miller in that hospital found their roots in her childhood. It all began when her baby teeth failed to fall out when they should have. Simultaneously, her adult teeth were struggling to come in. This recipe for disaster resulted in bacteria. For a good portion of Miller’s life, the bacteria, by way of cavities, had been slowly eating away at her jawbone. The family moved around often, so Miller’s dentist changed with each new house. Every dentist said the same thing. “We’ll keep an eye on it.” And just like that, it was time to pack up and leave again. No one was keeping an eye on Miller’s worsening mouth.
In the meantime, Miller attended the Rhode Island School of Design, eventually earning a BFA in Jewelry and Light Metals in 1990. It was there that she met Dave Opie, an illustrator. The two would later marry.
It was natural for her to choose this trajectory, as she had grown up in a creative household. “I come from a family of makers,” she said. Her mother, Martha Matthews, was a well known fiber artist. And Miller’s father was extremely hands-on. He built nearly everything—Barbie Dream Houses were never bought and never plastic. Frankly, it was bizarre if some other kid’s parents didn’t own a sewing machine.
An IV tube dangled from Miller’s inner elbow. In her hand, a piece of paper. Not long before the series of medical events began spirling, her mother, Martha, had stumbled upon an article about meditation. It was no typical, everyday guide. Introspective CDs created by Peggy Huddleston, emphasized the process of physical healing. Coincidence or not, this is what Miller needed.
The piece of paper consisted of mantras and chants from Huddleston’s meditation manual. She handed the sheet to the doctors for them to read aloud during the surgery. At first, they looked at her and chuckled as if to say, “Really? This is what you want us to do? We’re getting ready to cut you open and you want us to read this hunk of bullshit?” However corny the sayings might have seemed, it was important to Miller. And she was important to them, so in turn, the doctors respectfully complied.
That was that, the time had come. Miller was wheeled into the operating room. For the next twelve hours, she was unknowing as to if the doctors were really chanting or not.
There in the same grim waiting room, sat Miller’s husband, mother and sister in special-order “Team Chin” tee-shirts, made in support of Miller’s medical challenge. A blaring television, meant to entertain, rapidly infuriated Martha. Simply, “we’re not TV people.”
For hours on end, they waited. People came and people went. Still, they waited. For Dave, passing the time meant drawing and drawing and more drawing. Doctors would enter the room every few hours or so with updates on Miller. She was doing fine but it was going to take longer than expected. They waited and waited and waited.
6:30pm, 720 minutes later. The surgery was successful, everything was fine. But Miller was not the same person who had sat in the waiting room that morning. It was a startling sight. Miller’s head was locked into a foam structure. A breathing tube was still hooked up. Her jaw was gigantically swollen. She looked rough, to say the least.
“No” was an uncommon word in Miller’s upbringing. Her father had instilled in his daughters the encouraging idea of aspiration. They could do whatever they wanted in life. Miller’s habitual boredom allowed for a constant stream of new challenges to surface. Merely showing up has never been enough. Miller’s priority of passion was and is to learn.
“Death before a real job!” Miller was determined to disprove the starving artist cliche. Shortly after college, she ran a jewelry business out of her home in Providence, an uncharted hub for jewelry manufacturing. On the side, she freelanced at establishments such as Ralph Lauren; making models and networking.
Miller is an artist who knows how to make an Excel Spreadsheet. With the help of a few trade show opportunities, she learned to be an efficient business woman— pricing, marketing and photographing products. Never bored and always gaining knowledge, this was all right up her alley. It was the foundation to her success.
From there, Miller and her husband, Dave, lived in New York, San Francisco, and Chicago, to name a few places. Without selling her soul, she was able to make art in the corporate world: Martha Stewart, Sears, Ethan Allen, Pottery Barn Kids. Miller was no longer a starving artist.
After the surgery was over, Dave and family sat down with the doctors for an explanation, a break-down of the procedure in layman’s terms. Dave had jotted everything down. He sketched every scene. This made the doctors a bit nervous at the time, and he noticed. Miller’s case was complex and unprecedented. He came to realize that they had been guessing the entire time, more or less.
Still fairly “looped” and unable to turn her neck or speak clearly, Miller put pen to paper. Between her and Dave, notebooks upon notebooks were filled. His, with doodles and surgery-related notes. Hers, with incoherent fragments; pure gibberish. “What’s up,” and “this is boring,” she wrote, a couple of her more rare lucidities. However comical, it was no light situation. Miller’s sister, who spent that first night in the hospital with her, was left traumatized seeing her one and only sister incapacited, helpless.
For the two weeks following, a CD player filled Miller’s hospital room with the sound of classical music and those same guided meditations by Peggy Huddleston. The days had no structure—she would meditate when ever she needed or wanted to, visitors or not. Huddleston’s guidance would often calm Miller so much that her vitals dropped. Nurses, initially alarmed, soon learned that she was not dying, but instead, meditating.
At first, Miller’s doctors told her she would fully recover within one year. One year turned into two. Two years turned into three. But life doesn’t stop. Whilst still undergoing surgeries, Miller had accepted a job at Ethan Allen and moved to Connecticut. The whole journey had consisted of six procedures in three years: three major surgeries, followed by a handful of minor outpatient operations. And every six months, a flight to Chicago.
The ball that was Miller’s jawbone had been rolling for quite some time. Yet it only began to pick up speed a few years before September 29, 2009.
At the age of 41, Miller had found herself in Dr. Gay’s dental office. Miller was living and working in Chicago, as the Product Development and Design Director at Sears Holdings Corporation. The economy had just tanked and more bad news was on the way. Dr. Gay informed Miller that her lifelong tumors were expanding within the jawbone and into her mouth.
Finally, someone was keeping an eye on the situation. There was no denying it; Miller could feel a lump under her tongue. If she had bitten into something as typical as an apple, her jawbone would have, most definitely, shattered.
This, however, was no match for a regular dentist. Immediately, she was sent to an oral surgeon for a biopsy. A week later, Miller sat in the surgeon’s office, looking at a model skull. While he (the surgeon) explained the situation, she noticed that a portion of the jawbone was missing. “A big metal plate was holding the rest of it together, it looked like a bike chain.”
The mechanical beauty of the mandible fascinated Miller. It was both simply functional yet utterly marvelous. The doctors planned to take her jawbone apart in order to reconstruct it. Things can be broken apart, missing and still be put back together. At that moment, an artistic seed was planted. The work was cut out for the surgeons, and for Miller.
Perhaps a consolation for the years of seemingly endless trips to the doctor’s office, Miller eventually deviated from her life in the corporate world. She revisited the artistry from which she came and launched herself into the world of animal bones.
Those three years of experience inspired her to see some of her own life in perished creatures. If doctors could mend her up, there was no reason why she couldn’t do the same with fragmented animal remains.
Much like the doctors’ surgery prep for Miller’s operation(s), it begins with gathering materials. Miller steps into the thicket out by her Massachusetts-based art studio, and examines the woodland floor for any skeletal debris, something she calls “bone hunting.” Typical finds range from something as big as a moose ribcage to something as small as a horse tooth.
After hunting, Miller lays out the day’s natural treasures on a long, rectangular table that was once a closet door. The pieces are spread apart so she can easily view her collection. Often, she’ll walk by the table and something different always catches her eye.
Miller tweaks and moves the bones, arranging them in all different ways; a similar fashion in which the doctors approached her jawbone. She’ll even sit on the floor in front of a wood-burning fire and “just play with stuff.”
What she amassed is what she has to work with. It all comes down to the mechanics and balance of the pieces in relation to each other. For Miller, “taking these shapes and making them into something different is really important. I don’t want to just reassemble a deer.”
A dremel is to Miller as a scalpel is to a surgeon. Tools are vital to art and her’s is a unique one. Many times, the bones don’t fit quite the way she wants them to. In those cases, Miller puts dremel to bone, grinding them down to a desired form.
While she was a jewelry designer, Miller dealt with “findings.” These findings could be “a setting….little knick knacks.” Her job was picking out shapes and putting them together in order to create something marketable. Miller still uses the same approach. Yet, her findings are now bones, not plastic hearts.
The main goal is to not only make something visually beautiful, but to make it physically reliable. “It’s kind of the same thing,” the doctors put screws and metal into Miller’s jawbone, just as she now does to other bones. “They had to make something functional, they couldn’t just super-glue stuff together. It had to be structural,” she said.
Beyond the bones, there are few materials. Steel and copper are Miller’s metals of choice; working with both wire and sheet to bind pieces together. As far as the sheet metal goes, she uses the same pattern for each and every project. The pattern, which she prints out and traces onto a copper sheet, mimics that of her own jaw. Miller is the blueprint for her art.
Her creations, such as Alterable, are wall-mounted for viewing. Over the past couple years, Miller’s art has been exhibited in a number of gallery shows throughout Boston and Brooklyn. Since then, she has ventured into kinetic mobiles, employing deer ribs and scapulas as the “stars” of the piece.
The process of collecting, washing, polishing, and constructing the bones can take a day or a couple weeks. It’s all very uncertain. Miller’s life was uncertain for a time. Yet, it brought her to this place. A place where, through art, she can relive each surgery with her jawbone as a guide.