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  • Hannah Hightman

Beyond Bones

Photos by Khanh Le, Writing by Hannah Hightman

Walking into Sammy Jane Blankley’s room is, quite literally, like viewing her from the inside out. Amongst other morbid memorabilia are photos of Blankley’s internal organs taken during a surgery she had when she was just eleven for stomach issues. “They’re one of my favorite things in my collection,” she said. She also holds onto a capsule camera that went through her.

In many ways, this surgery and her health problems were the start of her obsession with the unseen and the morbid. “When I got sick I wanted to know more about anatomy and everything,” said Blankley. “I asked if I could keep the organs they had to remove, and they said no, so I had to settle for the photos.” But her taxidermy art was also heavily influenced by her mother’s work in animal rehabilitation. “We did have a lot of half dead animals,” she said. “It was about 50/50, about half survived. I loved watching the poisoned ones get revived. You give them charcoal that absorbs all the toxins and you watch them come back to life.”

As a child, Blankley struggled to understand which animals did not have any chance of surviving. “I was always bringing home half dead animals to save. I started accidentally bringing home fully dead animals and my mom was like ‘You gotta stop doing that, it’s weird,’” said Blankley. A particularly memorable incident involving a half dead rabbit in a bucket is still talked about today. “I brought home a half dead rabbit once and I was convinced we had to keep it, even after my mom told me we should take it to the vet to be put to sleep. So I placed the rabbit in a bucket and ran away from home,” Blankley laughs. “And I left a note that read ‘If you don’t love Trixie you don’t love me.” She ran away to the woods close to a nearby park. “I just remember sitting there in the woods with a dying rabbit in a bucket, and all of a sudden my dog was there. My mom had sent my dog into the woods to come find me.”

These days, Blankley still maintains her childhood fascination with anatomy and the connection between humans and animals, but she’s less focused on saving what’s beyond repair and more focused on giving a new purpose to animal materials, and making sure no part goes to waste. She sells her creations in her shop, Beyond Bones. “I just sold a rabbit’s heart today, so we’ve really come full circle,” she remarked. Although Blankley hesitates to use the word “ethical,” the materials she uses in her art are often trappers’ scraps and sometimes roadkill. When she is given a complete animal carcass, she uses every part of it. “The heart I preserve. The organs go to the woods for foxes and raccoons or whatever mutant is living back there that eats my scraps. And the beetles eat all the meat,” said Blankley.

Although Blankley cleans bones, makes jewelry, and has dabbled in memorial taxidermy, she is perhaps best known for her creepy-cute fantasy taxidermy pieces, namely the “Optopods,” spherical, fuzzy one-eyed creatures made from animal fur, plastic eyes, sometimes bird wings, sometimes duck feet. “I used to draw something very similar to the Optopods as a child. They were like my imaginary friends,” said Blankley. “I was just playing with the fur and everything one day, and this is what appeared. People went crazy for them.” The Optopods have a sturdy fanbase that Blankley has dubbed the Optopod Entourage. They collect all the “subspecies” of Optopods Blankley has come up with, depending on what materials she has on hand. There have been winged Optopods, Optopods with duck feet, and quite a few with rabbit ears. “I made friends with these people who raised rabbits for meat and as pets,” explained Blankley. “Rabbits are very fragile animals. Sometimes they just drop dead. It’s very tragic. So this girl had a freezer full of rabbits that she couldn’t sell for meat, because she didn’t know how long they were dead for. She found out about what I do, and then she just kept sending me all these rabbits, so many of the Optopods had ears during that time.”

Creating new species isn’t something that’s totally new for Blankley. Her thesis project at The University of the Arts was the creation of three (nearly) true to size hybrid animal-human babies made using silicone as well as real human and animal hair. “I made a whole baby book for them,” said Blankley as she pulled out a scrapbook filled with various photos of the babies being fed with a syringe, being taken out on various adventures, and sitting in the lab where they were created. “The laboratory set up came about because my teacher was like ‘Well where do these reside in reality?’ And I was like ‘They’re science experiments.’” Blankley’s father, who is a cabinet maker, helped her to make the set for the lab. Her collection of medical paraphernalia, mostly accrued during her many visits to the hospital during childhood, came in handy. Creating a mad scientist alter ego for herself, Blankley was able to give her otherworldly children the health and happiness she craved as a child. “I was like, these are going to be cute, healthy, happy animal human babies,” she said. “Growing up sick, that’s all I wanted– to be happy, cute, and healthy.”

Despite her good intentions, Blankley’s work was often misinterpreted by her art school peers. “I was banned from doing video presentations in college because I did a video presentation of me dissecting a pig,” she remembered. “It was an art school, so we didn’t have too many science-y people. They were all very hippie, and they were like ‘Oh my god this is horrible!’ And I was like ‘I’m sorry!’” Even today, her work draws controversy, with commenters on Instagram declaring her a murderer and an animal mutilator (nevermind the fact that she’s written in her bio she doesn’t kill anything). But Blankley welcomes all reactions to her work, even negative ones, that suggest it had any sort of impact on the emotional state of the viewer. “When I went to art school everyone was like ‘What is art?’ I feel like if it can elicit any kind of emotion from you– like if you can get anything out of a person –it’s art,” said Blankley. “Stuff where people paint bricks black and call it art, that makes me angry. Then I have to admit it is art because it made me angry. Anything that actually gives you a feeling.”

Now with oddities being more en vogue, Blankley is celebrated for that desire to unnerve her audience. Her own collection of oddities consists of pieces that she feels an emotional connection to, mainly given to her by (or purchased from) friends she’s made through her art.

“This I just got from another artist,” she said as she held up a frog that looked about as fake as it did real. “It’s her own formula of plastination. She hasn’t patented it yet but she’s going to and I just had to buy one.”

Next she turns her attention to a pair of badger feet. “These I’ve always wanted,” she explained. “My sister calls me honey badger because sometimes I get a little too aggressive with things.”

Recently, she’s been very into collecting animal fetuses because it perfectly exemplifies her creepy cute sensibilities– she has rabbits, cats, opossums, and beavers. “I’m always like ‘Oh my god they’re so cute.’ But then you think about it and you realize it lost its life and everything,” she remarked somberly.

One of the most eye-catching items in her collection is a human skull. “I won it in a raffle for $25 or so. He probably had more than a couple hundred people enter and my number was picked,” she marveled “Never thought I’d get a human skull. Never thought I could afford one. I’d never won anything. It was like a total fluke.”

Her sister, who works as a jewelry maker and gemologist out in California, often finds strange objects to send Blankley’s way. One of the most memorable is a (petrified) seal’s baculum. “She sent me that and was like ‘Found a seal penile bone and thought of you,’” Blankley laughed. “With the oddities people, they go crazy for the penile bone. They think it’s like the funniest thing. I have a whole pile of them over there. These I’m making into necklaces. Coyotes, foxes, raccoons. Raccoon ones are the most common.”

Her collection is always growing too. She’s on the lookout for a replica of a flamingo skull, and she has an armadillo fetus coming in the mail. She was especially looking forward to the arrival of a much coveted Hornbill skull from Africa. “That’s been on my bucket list for a while. The guy was having a flash sale because his washing machine broke and I had to buy it,” she said with a smile.

Although Blankley’s work might raise some eyebrows, even the naysayers have to admit that she comes by her morbid obsession honestly, and it seems to permeate almost every aspect of her life. She’s even dating a mortician who, ironically, has made it clear he wouldn’t be comfortable with having human bones in his house. She may have mellowed a bit since childhood, but her connection with the dead, or rather the objects of the dead still holds strong. “It’s this weird satisfactory feeling of making something beautiful when it no longer has a spirit in it,” she said. “So many people have asked me if I feel like my house is haunted with all this dead stuff hanging around. But it’s like nothing exists with it anymore. It becomes an object. I just like the beauty in bones.”

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