An Eye for Detail
Ottie Thomas-Smith handcrafts some of the nation's finest prosthetic eyes, ears, noses, and more.
By Brian Kevin
photographed by Jason P. Smith
The velvety brown of a highly pigmented iris. The fractal spokes of a prominent collarette. The faint, watery swish that suggests a scratched cornea. After nearly four decades making hyper-realistic prosthetic eyes, this is what Ottie Thomas-Smith sees when she meets your gaze. If the eyes really are the windows to the soul, then Thomas-Smith is like a Jedi plate-glass specialist, someone who takes in the subtle characteristics of the windowpane itself while everyone else is just looking through it.
Thomas-Smith’s workshop is tucked away on a quiet, rural highway in Jackson, population 548, in a low-slung, vinyl-sided office building that’d be easy to miss for the surrounding trees. Inside is a display case showing off her work: flesh-colored ears, cheeks, and noses made of silicone; unblinking eyes with bottomless pupils. Richly detailed and divorced from their facial context, they look like something out of a Dali painting. The prosthetics display is a surreal contrast to its unassuming surroundings: a plain, beige waiting room seems understated for one of New England’s most accomplished ocularists and anaplastologists.
Admittedly, this is not a large field. The American Society of Ocularists — clinicians who fashion fake eyes — counts all of 171 members nationwide. Board-certified anaplastologists, who specialize in facial prosthetics, number only in the dozens. Of the two specialties, the prosthetic eye biz is particularly insular. Certification requires ten thousand hours of one-on-one apprenticeship, and new recruits tend to come from the families of existing ocularists, meaning that third- and even fourth-generation practitioners are not uncommon.
Thomas-Smith’s background, then, is exceptional. In 1974, she was a twenty-one-year-old art student at the Rhode Island School of Design, sinking long hours into figurative sculptures that fused wax and human hair. She’d been drawn to art ever since she was a doodling toddler, declaring in her high-school yearbook quote that she hoped to become the country’s “best unknown artist.” One day in Providence, Thomas-Smith struck a conversation up with a Vietnam vet after noticing that his prosthetic arm sported real hair. If you think that’s cool, said the man, stop by the Veterans Administration (VA) hospital in Manhattan and meet the folks who gave it to me.
So Thomas-Smith did just that. In New York, the staff at the VA prosthetic research center took one look at her fine-arts résumé, then asked when she could start. Thus began a decade-long career with the VA, one that eventually saw her running the agency’s eye and facial clinic in Boston. Then, as now, Thomas-Smith explains, an artist’s skill set was invaluable, since creating prosthetics is as much an aesthetic endeavor as a medical one.
“You can teach how to make things and fit things,” says Thomas-Smith, who at sixty looks a bit like Margaret Thatcher, with curlier hair and a lab coat, “but you can’t just teach someone to be a painter or a sculptor. Matching color is important. You have to be comfortable with very unusual-looking situations, and you have to have a sense of patience with your own work.”
In a back room at Boston Ocular Prosthetics — the private practice that moved to Maine when Thomas-Smith and her husband fled city life in 1984 — an apprentice and a lab tech drape red embroidery thread across a few formless white blobs, veins in what will soon become prosthetic eyes. Spread out on the table in front of them is a rainbow potpourri of acrylic paints, used to mimic the exquisite detail of a patient’s “good” iris. While no two prosthetics are alike, there’s a mostly standardized and surprisingly low-tech routine to fabricating an acrylic eye. First, Thomas-Smith makes a cast of her patient’s socket or facial cavity, sometimes in Jackson, but often in her Boston or Portland office. The cast is duplicated in wax, which can be reformed until it fits perfectly. Then, usually with the patient in the room, Thomas-Smith and her assistants make the tiny and impossibly intricate painting of their patient’s iris, which they mount onto a stem and pack it into the mold with a wad of white acrylic. The whole bundle is cured inside a countertop pressure cooker until it takes on a rubbery toughness. Delicately, the white is cut away to reveal the iris, then the eye is polished with a muslin-mopped buffing machine, “veined” with thread, touched up, and finally covered with a clear resin before one final, fastidious polishing.
It’s a process that takes, on average, sixteen to twenty hours per eye, although some can take up to eighty hours of work. Thomas-Smith, however, is nothing if not patient. Like model building or mandala painting, shaping prosthetics is a meditative task. And as with those pursuits, the artist doesn’t seek any recognition for her creativity. In fact, Thomas-Smith’s devotion to victims of injury, cancer, burns, and other misfortunes has, in a sense, allowed her to make good on her youthful goal of anonymous artistic expression.
“My patients know me,” she says contentedly, “but, hopefully, no one else does. This is a field where you don’t want people to notice your work.”
Brian Kevin is a contributor to Outside, Sierra, and the Fodor’s series of travel guidebooks.