The Imaginarium of Capsulariums – The Bone Art of Laurel Cunningham-Hill.

The Gift

The Gift

A for the artist who loves Edward Gorey.
B is for bones, and the rest of the story.
C  is for Laura Cunningham-Hill.
 Who plays with the leavings of owls in pills

By Laurencia Ciprus / Images courtesy Laurel Cunningham-Hill

Madame Groeda Wyrde is incarnated. This anagrammed, pseudonym of shadow noir illustrator Edward Gorey is resurrected in the hell-broth talent of artist Laurel Cunningham-Hill.  LCH is an ideal channel for Mme. Wyrde – the phantom mischief behind Gorey’s infamous “Fantod Deck,” his satirical poke at the dark art of Tarot. A mythic journey worthy of Joseph Campbell set her up with a full box of magic. The daughter of two artists who played in the black loam of a childhood spent in the woods, Cunningham-Hill was instructed in the ancient ways of foraging and critical elements of the natural world by her dad. It wasn’t uncommon for this boundless family to bring back dead creatures after a trek through the forest, which proved a loving and slightly off-center foundation for a creative future.

owl-pelletsWith Morticia Addams as a role model, and artists Bosch, Dali, Gorey, and Charles Addams as inspiration, Cunningham-Hill took her MassArt degree in illustration into a fire circle of directions – ranging from curatorial framing for Museum of Fine Arts, Boston’s “Polaroid Reproduction Project,” to a respected career in commercial a. In her late 20’s; and in a parallel universe, the Massachusetts native was mesmerized by her first sci-fi convention. She arrived in a friend’s hearse at The World Sci-Fi Fantasy Convention in Baltimore as a surreal distraction from nursing a pretty conventional broken heart. Sans costume, Cunningham-Hill wound up modeling a chain-maille ensemble for a vendor at the event, while capturing the eye of her future husband. This first convention hatched a stellar stint in cosplay design and education.

Project to the astral plane of motherhood and a hiatus from the art scene, and enter the exquisite alchemy of Cunningham-Hill’s ingenious jewelry line: “Capsulariums” – an invented name for vessel, like aquarium or terrarium. The muses returned in full force the day her son came home from school with an owl pellet. Presto: the artist’s dark side was re-ignited. These pellet-like-pills – sterilized in low temperature commercial ovens – are the intact, skeletal leavings from the raptor’s consumption of tiny rodents. Distributors ship them to schools for educational purposes pulled from massive stockpiles in Midwestern barns. In the case of Laura Cunningham-Hill they are not discarded bits, but art material.


Sorting of bones.

Dissected and meticulously rinsed, she catalogs them by size and type in a collection of tackle boxes. The bones then take on fresh meaning as she places them in random patterns, like the divination of runes. The spirits of the tiny creatures have been telling Laura what they want to become since 2012 and are transformed into reverent relics of human figures, flora, and insects. These miniature dioramas are measured by the millimeter and perfectly encapsulated in the discarded watch casings from Steampunk artists who extract the gears and inner-workings and leave the metal carcasses much like the raptors do their pellets.

Cunningham-Hill’s traditional training in fine art is evidenced by her work’s parallels to centuries of Tribal adornments and in harmony with Victorian Era “Cabinets of Curiosities” – collections which displayed dried pressed flowers, bones, shells, and other natural objects.  Capsulariums are truly mesmerizing in a melding of dark art and veneration. There are tableau pendants like “Cemetery Visitors” – depicting bats hovering over a microcosmic graveyard; the filigreed and stone encrusted “Pollination” with bees and flowers, or the impossibly intricate “Poseidon” in a cobalt enameled case, which would rival any Hellenic artifact. The process ranges from one to two hours for the smalls and up to ten hours for the most ambitious pieces. In addition to the enhancements of crystals and stones, LCH adds pearl buttons for moons and strips of plastic mortician’s cadaver teeth for the insect components.



Capsulariums transcend art and are Cunningham-Hill’s loving memorial to her connections to the natural kingdom. “These poor little mice and voles which were first only food are now transformed into venerated spirits with new meaning. I’ve always loved animals and was always rescuing wild creatures as a child. I’ve had scores of pets: cats and dogs; mice, rabbits, fish; a macaw and cockatiels.” She pauses and reflects fondly. “I’m sure I’ve left something out. Oh yes…of course! We had a 12 foot Albino Burmese Python. She was, oh so very docile and incredibly easy to handle. She was donated to the Southwick Zoo when we discovered that you needed a permit for a snake over 8 feet in Massachusetts. The guy that ran the reptile house ended up taking her home for his private collection when he left the zoo.”

So what’s the next conjuring for this artist who loves the spirit world and animal bones? “I want to do a mandala next…a sort of bone mosaic. There is also the art show at the Arisa Sci-Fi Convention in Boston coming up in 2017. This is my fourth year as a participant, and I have crafted a mask incorporating bones.” She shifts back into the earthly plane and discusses her serious intention for the trajectory of the jewelry line: “I would like the body of the Capsularium works to be appreciated as fine art and garner a gallery following, and I am looking forward to exploring this channel.”

The days are growing shorter and the light dimmer, with Halloween on the darkening horizon. The conversation is cut short, as a local filmmaker is shooting a scene from his 10-page screenplay in the LCH’s home.  The Cunningham-Hill master bedroom has been appropriated as a temporary set and is now transformed into a space in Aleppo; yet another parallel universe in the mist and shadow. The filming throws off the family schedule, and plans for the annual Cunningham-Hill Halloween celebration are deferred for now. “Last year, the latest “Mad Max” came out, and we jumped on the theme.  This year with the filming, we are likely going to do a last minute blowout with inspiration from our friends.”

It will assuredly be epic and otherworldly, albeit business as usual for this incarnate of Madame Groeda Wyrde:

“X” for enticements of spirit and life,
“Y” for the yearnings of creativity, rife,
“Z” for the zeal of the infinite muse,
and the miniature, magical vessels they use.

For further information about the art and works of Massachusetts based artist, Laurel Cunningham-Hill, please visit her website:

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Caryn B. Davis Photography