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VOL. 122 | NO. 88 | Monday, May 14, 2007

Shrinking Ocularist Field Has Foothold in Memphis

By Andy Meek

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IN THE EYES: Nick Pena, a silicone ocularist, polishes a prosthetic eye in Matt Singer's Downtown Memphis lab in the Morgan Keegan Tower. -- Photo By Andy Meek

Matt Singer was keeping an eye out for the ABC television news crew scheduled to visit his eighth floor office suite in Morgan Keegan Tower Thursday.

That is to say, it was a literal eye being kept and which attracted the ABC cameras to the immaculate office and lab space of Singer Prosthetics overseen by Singer, an upbeat, fast-talking former makeup artist and special effects whiz from Hollywood. While it's not immediately obvious from his booming voice and movie-star charisma, Singer and company operate in a shrinking and little-publicized corner of the world of prosthetics - that of crafting artificial eyes.

An eye for a missing eye

One of Singer's latest prosthetic eyes, for which molds are cast and polished in a workspace toward the back of his office suite, was prepared for Eddie Mitchell, a former drug addict now in his 40s living in Seattle. ABC News earlier this month had broadcast a segment on Mitchell, who lost one of his eyes in a fight and had to fork over several thousand dollars for a prosthetic replacement.

He later lost his prosthetic eye in a freak accident, and ABC picked up his story in the hopes that someone would respond by helping Mitchell replace the replacement.

"That glass eye cost Eddie $3,500," reported John Sharify in a broadcast for KOMO 4 News in Seattle, an ABC affiliate. "It's money he doesn't have."

Singer, whose office also houses a slightly macabre melange of noses, foreheads and other facial prosthetics in various stages of completion, volunteered to donate one of his patented silicone eyes to Mitchell free of charge.

"The eye is one of the most delicate organs in the body, and people hurt their eyes so often you would not believe," said Singer, who used to design monsters and other creatures most foul for films and TV shows such as "X-Files" and "Buffy the Vampire Slayer."

Shrinking field

As it happens, Hollywood's growing reliance on computer technology meant less of a demand for artists like Singer. After a few other bumps along the professional road, he serendipitously stumbled into the narrow field of eye-making.

It is narrow in the sense that there are only a few hundred ocularists in the world. Most are self-taught or acquire the skills on their own; according to the American Society of Ocularists, there are no schools that teach the skill.

Memphis is home to a select few, such as Singer, who garner customers from far and wide. Robert Thomas, an ocularist who operates an office in Memphis, has crafted eyes for celebrities such as Sammy Davis Jr. and Peter Falk.

"I also do maxillofacial prosthetics, which I'm going to be showcasing on the news too," Singer said. "I do noses and ears and orbital prosthetics. We just did one for a young man. He's about 19 years old, from Israel, and a bunch of people got together and came up with the money to send him here.

"I did an artificial ear for him and an orbital prosthetic in one week's time. And apparently his parents cried and were excited when they saw it; I just got a call that they were loving it, and he's doing a great job with the prosthetics."

The call also opened the door to more potentially high-level exposure for Singer's burgeoning eye-making operation. The boy's family invited Singer to Israel to give a lecture on his techniques and possibly open a clinic there.

"There are a lot of people in need of artificial eyes, ears, noses and that kind of thing over there," Singer said. "So it looks like I'm going to be doing some trips over to the Middle East."

Finding the latest and greatest

Singer's field has attracted all manner of interest, from the genuinely curious to the skeptical, from devotees to the cautiously optimistic. One practitioner, the Oregon-based ocularist Fred Harwin, is the subject of an award-winning documentary short, "The Ocularist."

"What we're really dealing with is illusion," he explains in the film. "No matter how good (the prosthetic) is artistically, no matter how close in color, how close in shape, it's always going to be inferior."

Various circles of the medical and ocularism communities are in the midst of studying the merits of Singer's specific choice of material for his FDA-approved eye - silicone - which does an end-run around the use of acrylic, long a standard among eye-makers. Acrylic represented the next step after glass eyes.

Dr. Cari Lyle and Dr. James Fleming at the University of Tennessee Health Science Center are conducting research for a study of the silicone eye and will be making a presentation on the topic at a meeting of the American Society of Ocularists in October in Chicago.

"They really wanted data," Singer said. "So they're going to be calling up a bunch of my patients and they're going to see the responses for themselves."

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