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Sitka artist designs slinky dress from 20,000 salmon bones

The idea for a glam salmon-bone dress swam around in Cynthia Gibson's head for a while before she got cracking on her vision.

"Three years ago I collected buckets and buckets of small vertebrae. Bones in general, I find beautiful. They have a beautiful line and form," said the Sitka artist. "I always wondered why no one was doing much with salmon vertebrae because they're everywhere and they're easy to bead. They already have a hole in the center of them from the spinal cord."

A dress draped with 20,000 salmon bones by Sitka artist Cynthia Gibson. (Stephanie Lambdin Productions)

It took 20,000 of those bone beads for Gibson to get the vintage '20s-style, dripping-in-pearls look she was going for. She sorted, sanded, cleaned and bleached the bones before stringing them on to a little black dress she bought at a thrift store.

"You could (imagine) Greta Garbo or an old-style screen legend wearing something like this," said Gibson, a financial adviser who makes art in her spare time.

Gibson completed the dress in December, and it walked the runway at the Sitka Wearable Arts Fashion Show in February. The Salmon Project recently featured it in their Salmon Life storytelling movement. The dress may also be going places. Gibson said an Oregon museum interested in displaying it in a salmon-themed exhibition recently contacted her.

"I'm excited people are as happy with it as I am," Gibson said. "I love to see how nature and art mix … I wanted the whole dress to be kind of like a giant salmon vertebrae. I also wanted it to swish like a fish when it walks."

A dress draped with 20,000 salmon bones by Sitka artist Cynthia Gibson. She completed the dress in December and it was featured in Sitka’s Wearable Arts Show in February. The Salmon Project recently featured the dress as part of their Salmon Life storytelling project. (Stephanie Lambdin Productions)

Gibson gathered the pink, silver and chum salmon bones for the formfitting frock at the Halibut Point State Recreation Site. After realizing she didn't have enough bones to make the dress she envisioned, Gibson asked Sitka Sound Seafood for some help, and they donated 250 king salmon carcasses.

"That was really nice of them. Those bones were much bigger," she said. "A lot of vertebrae bones have spikes on them and that's what I had to sand down. It's a lot harder to sand the little bones. It ended up being a lot easier in the long run to have big bones."

Gibson used the small bones for the top of the piece, and bigger bones at the bottom. The variety of sizes adds dimension to the dress, which looks deceptively delicate.

"Salmon bones are really tough. It would take a lot to break them," Gibson said. "You can sit on them, roll on them, walk on them …"

Organic materials do have their disadvantages, and Gibson has a guess as to why salmon bones aren't widely used in the fashion world.

"Maybe it's because they stink. People at the Wearable Arts Show could smell the dress," she said. "Every day it smells a little bit less intense."

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