Good bones make beautiful art

‘Osteotaxist’ D.C. Wilson honors animals through delicate bone arrangements.

Growing up in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, D.C. Wilson spent a lot of time in the woods and saw animal bones in nature. But it wasn’t until six years ago that she started her own personal collection.

“Being from the north and being from the woods, you would just find skulls in nature,” Wilson says. “I just started collecting those, and once you start collecting, strangely enough, people will just come to you with skulls.”

Wilson has a professional art background and graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts from Finlandia University in 2010. Before starting her bone collection, she was largely an illustrator and painter, but she’s had a fascination with animals, dinosaurs and monsters since childhood.

Around the same time people started giving her antlers and skulls, she began to feel burned out from illustrating and painting. That’s when she decided to become an “osteotaxist,” a term she coined to mean someone who arranges bones.

Wilson, who also works as a painter and fabricator for Dapper Cadaver, adorns animal bones and showcases them in sculptural display pieces.

“I want to dress them up, and I want to give them a new life,” she says. “I want to have them displayed again because [if] you did kill an animal for its trophy, you should at least honor the animal by showing it, by displaying how beautiful it is.”

Wilson started first with antlers because they were more readily available at flea markets or antique sales. She says people often just randomly contact her saying they have antlers and skulls that she could use in future pieces. “When you collect bones, people just know and they’ll hand them over,” Wilson says.

She’s even had some people track her down at a craft fair and give her the bones they’ve had lying around their homes.

In Wisconsin, you can’t pick up roadkill, and Wilson makes sure that everything is collected in accordance with state and federal laws. She never uses the bones of endangered or protected animals.

“I don’t want an animal to be killed for its skull,” she says. “I try to get everything as a byproduct of something else.”

Wilson will clean bones herself, but she also works with some suppliers whose sole focus is on fully sanitizing animal bones that were collected legally. She also buys from professionals who deal in taxidermy.

As a collector herself, she was surprised to learn that so many people share her unique artistic passion. “There’s quite a group of slightly macabre collectors,” Wilson says. At a recent Crafty Fair, Wilson nearly sold out her entire stock.

She says 90% of the work that goes into a piece involves collection. She tries to figure out if a piece would be best mounted on a wall or in a dome, or mounted on different materials like curio boxes or tin ceiling tiles. She’ll also sculpt and paint faux mushrooms and incorporate greenery, florals or other trinkets. Then there are the bones themselves — she’s only able to use the pieces she’s collected, so it’s harder to make a specific request for a particular animal.

“It’s a lot of editing. You take all your stuff, you put it together, see if it works, you edit, you move things around,” Wilson says. “Sometimes I’ll have [a piece] on the wall for months and then decide I don’t want it like that anymore and take it apart.”

In addition to the bone sculptures, Wilson continues to do illustrations, but she says they’ve gotten a bit darker in recent years in part because of her work with bones. “It started to push me into being a little bit more creative and branching out a little bit more,” she says.

While “osteotaxy” isn’t always the most glamorous work, especially when it comes to cleaning the bones, Wilson says she never wants to waste the pieces she’s been given.

For her, using bones in her art is a way to memorialize an animal. Her pieces aim to make the bones aesthetically pleasing and go beyond a traditional wall mount.

“It’s a way to remember an animal and how beautiful it was, and it’s a way to just admire the way that life has this internal scaffolding,” Wilson says.

Find D.C. Wilson Art:

Maija Inveiss is a former associate editor of Madison Magazine.

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