Remembering Lisa Bufano, A Dancer Who Found Beauty In Amputation

Introduction by Andrea Shea

At the end of a year the media rolls out lists and lists of things gained and lost over the previous 12 months. Celebrity deaths are inevitably noted. But then there are the creatives who operate on a smaller stage, sometimes under the radar. Lisa Bufano was one of them.

I profiled this beautiful young artist and dancer for WBUR and NPR in 2007. This past October — a few years after moving from Boston to San Francisco to become a professional dancer -- Lisa took her own life. She was 40 years-old.

I met Lisa in late 2006, after her brother Peter — a circus musician and composer I had done a story about — urged me to profile his younger sibling.

He explained that Lisa was a vivacious, talented visual artist, but the real news was that she was about to make her debut as a dancer. It was a bold move, Peter said, because she was also a bilateral amputee.

He continued to tell me that Lisa didn’t talk much about the fact that she had lost both of her legs below the knee, and most of her fingers, when she was 21. Other journalists had gotten her story wrong, Peter said, and she was wary. But he trusted me, he said, adding that he thought Lisa and I would hit it off. I welcomed the invitation and the responsibility that came with accepting it.

After surviving a staph infection — and the operation that staved-off her death — Lisa continued to make her art. She loved sewing sculptures made of fabric. She had a thing for the creepy-cute, the exotic, the bizarre. Things that were dark but also beautiful.

After losing her limbs, Lisa eventually started making photos of herself. She posed as provocative characters and fantastic creatures while wearing selections from her collection of prosthetic legs.

Lisa Bufano (Courtesy)
Lisa Bufano (Courtesy)

The pictures were stunning. They made visual Lisa’s belief in the power of metamorphosis. No words necessary.

"I want to be seen as attractive and beautiful and sexy like everyone else," Lisa eventually told me. "But I think that in my artwork, for me, it's trying to find some comfort with being everything a human can be."

Lisa was also incredibly athletic. She ran regularly along the Charles River on carbon fiber legs. When I started recording our interviews she invited me to tag along. I’ll never forget her petite-but-strong figure cutting back and forth in front of my microphone — or the sound her curved, springy running legs made as they struck the pavement again and again and again.

I’ll admit, I was taken by Lisa the moment I met her. She had the air of a pixie. Her inner-strength was palpable. I was lucky enough to travel to New York City for Lisa’s debut in a world premiere piece choreographed just for her. Its title, “Five Open Mouths,” referred to the way she sometimes viewed the five stubs on each of her hands.

Everyone in the audience was moved. She started the piece with prosthetics — but eventually shed them, revealing her physical form — her lithe, beautiful, legless body — as it truly was. I’m not sure I’ve ever witnessed as brave a display of vulnerability. The amputees in the audience smiled and clapped, some wept.

Now Peter and his family are struggling to make sense of Lisa’s death. I asked him to write a remembrance for his dear sister, and he did. Here it is:

My sister Lisa always had a creative project in the works. Paintings, drawings, a poem, costumes, a tuxedo for her dog, an animated family history, a circus act, modeling for photos, a new website, a dance, table-leg-stilts — and eventually a dress which was also a squid.

Our earliest collaborations were magic shows presented to an audience of one. My mother sat patiently on the sofa while I performed illusions I’d learned from library books. Lisa was my assistant.

(Camilla Finlay)
(Camilla Finlay)

She took direction very well. And she was good at acting surprised when things appeared and disappeared. Lisa was amazingly patient with me throughout the process. She remembered all of my stage directions and her dialog without relying on a written script. Even as a little girl Lisa was capable of giving herself over fully to a creative process.

For the last couple of years she was working on the squid dress, I only saw it in pieces small enough for her to carry around. Unbleached white muslin fabric is a strange choice for a dress; a little rough on the skin, but strong and durable. Muslin is able to adopt the mood and color of its surroundings.

The most remarkable parts of the squid dress were tentacles which varied in size, from a few inches in diameter to one many times the size of its creator. Each tentacle was speckled with thousands of small “suckers." All of these hand-sewn details made of the same simple fabric came together in a dress clearly fitted for Lisa’s small, strong body.

Lisa was easily engaged by seemingly futile efforts. She saw something beautiful in futility. She was able to transform futility into beauty.

The scope of the squid dress seemed overwhelming if not impossible. And symbolically I love the futility of it. Lisa was easily engaged by seemingly futile efforts. She saw something beautiful in futility. She was able to transform futility into beauty.

I became aware of this ability while on an adventure in San Francisco a few years before Lisa would ultimately move there. She insisted on a huge day of walking to see sights all over the city, and we were both entirely exhausted as we returned to the hostel in Chinatown. I could barely keep my eyes open, and she was so physically exhausted from walking on prosthetic legs for hours that it was futile to try to climb the three flights of stairs. But Lisa insisted on trying. I think she fell after about five steps and I carried her, piggy-back, all the way up. It is my fondest memory of her.

For years, we shared a joke. That being an artist is not a career, but rather a birth defect. When one of us was preparing for a journey we’d consult with the other about which project to bring. A long creative process can hold your inner world together when the rest of the world blurs. Some people read a book on the plane — Lisa sewed thousands of tiny fabric suckers on tentacles to make a dress.

She was always good with her hands. A great many things changed when Lisa lost her fingers, but her ability to create beautiful things only seemed to improve.

People who were close to her in adult life described Lisa as a giver rather than a taker. I consider it a family trait; to find comfort in helping others yet to be entirely uneasy in accepting help. I don’t think of this as a fundamentally bad thing, but at her memorial service one of her closest friends suggested that she might have given so easily to others that she kept nothing for herself. I’m sure Lisa would disagree with that, but I take comfort in that interpretation of her life at times when I miss her. Times like right now.

I recently saw a photo of Lisa in Europe following a friend of hers up a dirt road. I wondered who she was following in this life. And it makes my eyes water.

Lisa deserved more from life. This world was too small for her beauty. This world could not even provide legs for her to dance on or fingers for her to sew a dress with.

I wouldn’t dare speculate that it was the reason my sister chose to end it. But when I’m angry, I look around and see people with legs and fingers and they are doing nothing with them. It must have been hard for her to bear sometimes.

I’m surrounded by speculation about why Lisa took her own life. Facebook, friends, family members, and her fans would all like to know. They want it to make sense to them. They want to feel okay. Ultimately they want her back.

But I am having great difficulty with all of this. Lisa didn’t like other people projecting their idea of who she was on her. We’ll never understand why. It will never make sense.

I believe she lived her entire life and that her life was many lives. I don’t believe it was cut-off short. Her mission was completed and she must have understood that fact when she departed from this world. She was alone with her dog in her home in the middle of the night.

Still, going on without my sister feels unbearable at times. The world is a far less beautiful place without Lisa’s face. The funniest jokes are less funny without her laugh. A dress is just a dress without her quirky, dark, creepy, beautiful way of seeing the world.

This program aired on December 24, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.


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