Odd Jobs: The Art Of Making Fake Eyes

By Stina Sieg
Published: Friday, July 11, 2014 - 5:05am
Updated: Wednesday, July 8, 2015 - 8:19am
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(Photo By Stina Sieg - KJZZ)
These are just a few of ocularist John Hadlock's tiny, usable pieces of art. Each fake eye takes about 30 hours to construct, paint and fit.

Odd Jobs is a series that looks at the surprising jobs people carve out for themselves — and why they're so necessary.

It goes without saying that just about everything in this modern world is mass-produced. But there are a few exceptions: homemade cookies, artisanal cheese and – as it turns out – eyeballs.

John Hadlock is an ocularist, which means he makes his living recreating eyes that others have lost. He’s the only board-certified one in the state, and one of fewer than 200 in the country. So, he’s pretty much busy all the time. The other morning, he was looking through a magnifying glass at his office in Mesa. Using a bright light, he stared into a blue, 81-year-old eye. Hadlock was taking stock of the color changes, the veining, everything that makes this eye unique.

“There’s no trick to making an eye," he said. “It’s just solid, hard work.”

Here at his business, Eye Concern, he’s got his tools laid out in front of him: paint he mixed himself, fast-drying liquid, a tiny brush. Then there’s that blank, acrylic eyeball, perfectly molded to fit the pink, empty socket in front of him.

It belongs to Mary Ellen VanDeWyngard.

She’s here, “because this talented gentleman make the best eye in the world,” she said before chuckling, “if you need one.”

VanDeWyngard has needed one since she was 4, when an accident damaged her eye beyond repair. In the years since, she’s gone through many prosthetics as her body grew. In the beginning, they were made of blown glass.

“In the old days you had to take it out, which wasn’t very romantic,” she joked. “Or fun at a slumber party.”

Hadlock remembers the old days of fake eyes, too— and not fondly. Decades ago, his sister lost an eye. His family couldn’t find someone to fit her with a prosthetic.

“So she wore a black patch for 13 years," Hadlock said. "Finally, we did find someone who knew what they were doing, who had the skill level to fit her an eye. And it just made all the difference in the world for her. It changed her life.”

And it changed his.

In another room, employee Sherry Brown flipped through a binder full of faces. She pointed out babies, senior citizens, teenagers, all of whom with an eye replaced.

“And it’s very hard to tell which is which,” Brown said.

She has worked here more than a decade and explained that ocularists really serve two functions. One is very nuts and bolts: If someone loses an eye, that socket needs to be filled with something, or the face might get deformed. Plus, there’s the vanity aspect.

“You know, it gives the girl in high school, it gets her the prom date,” Brown said. “Which totally has happened.”

Some patients even have fun with their new eyes, she added. She remembers one teenage football player who had his school mascot painted onto his iris, just to freak out his opponents on the field.   

“I mean, if you have $3,036 to go ahead and do that, great," Brown said. "You know, we can do that, but we’ve also had people who’ve had an American eagle painted on there, an American flag, anything.”

But the majority of patients just want to blend in. Like Mary Ellen VanDeWyngard, who got her last fake eye from Hadlock 13 years ago. As she held her good eye open wide, Hadlock compared his half-done prosthesis.

“I’ll pull some gold in there and some green,” he said, inspecting the new iris. “OK, cool. We’re on our way.”

Between slow, additional layers of paint, Hadlock was popping the fake eye into into VanDeWyngard’s socket – and then out again, as he compared. The process usually takes about three hours, but VanDeWyngard didn’t mind. She said she likes chatting with Hadlock, not to mention watching him work.

“Look what he’s doing,” she said. “It’s just like Van Gogh or somebody.”

Hadlock smiled at the comparison. He has painted portraits and landscapes in the past. But he says this work is something else entirely.

“So when I get done, the artwork walks out the door, and that’s just fine,” he said. “Doesn’t bother me one bit.”

These handcrafted eyeballs are not about him, he insisted. They’re a service, often for people who desperately need it.

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