Matt Singer makes faces. Literally. The artist and animator turned inventor and clinician makes artificial noses, chins, cheeks, ears, you name it. He custom-sculpts every wrinkle, pore, and laugh line for people who have, by way of accident or disfiguring illness, lost some significant portion of their face. But in order to truly understand Singer, who fancies himself to be an artist in the tradition of the Renaissance masters, you first have to look deep into his eyes — his soft artificial eyes made from a pliable FDA-approved silicone he calls "FlexiGlass." These prosthetics are the first of their kind, and Singer hopes that they will eventually replace the hard acrylic standard.
Singer never wanted to be an ocularist (the term used to describe professional eyemakers). He never wanted to be anything but an artist. He was a precocious kid who fell in love with the adventure movies he saw on television, particularly the ones featuring fantastical monsters created by Ray Harryhausen, the king of stop-motion animation. Singer started making his own stop-motion films at age 10, and as a teenager he developed a second passion for special-effects makeup. He attended New York University film school to study special effects, and after graduation, he moved to Los Angeles where he used his silicone casting skills to create special-effects-makeup extravaganzas for Bicentennial Man, Species II , and Star Trek: Nemesis . But after 14 years in the film industry, Singer left L.A. to teach sculpture at the Memphis College of Art, and to develop new and more practical applications for cast silicone, including a soft prosthetic eye.
What made him get out of show biz at the top of his game? "I remember seeing Jurassic Park and thinking, 'I'm obsolete.' Nobody's going to want special effects makeup when they can make dinosaurs that real on a computer."
And why a silicone eye? At the beginning of World War II German artisans had a monopoly on the production of artificial eyes. When the German eyes were no longer available, and their process for producing implant grade glass couldn't be replicated, the U.S. Army dental corps, with some help from the burgeoning plastics industry, developed the highly polished acrylic eye that has become the industry standard.
"But it's hard," Singer complains. "And when you polish an acrylic eye they can develop tiny scratches on the surface that cause little cuts inside the eyelid."
Doctors and veterans of the eyemaking trade seem to agree that there's nothing wrong with polished acrylic eyes. Done correctly they work well enough for most people. But for people like Betty Maxwell, Singer's first client and biggest fan, they don't work well at all.
Maxwell, who lost her eye at the age of 2 when she ran into an ice pick at a family picnic, spent most of her adult life carrying a tissue in one hand to daub away the tears and the discharge caused by her acrylic eye.
"There's no way to accurately describe the pain," Maxwell says of the near-lifetime she spent wearing an acrylic eye. "For the first time since I can't remember when, I'm not in torture," she says in praise of her new, soft prosthetic. And comfort isn't Singer's only consideration.
"I had two choices," he says of the assistants he's hired to help him cast and color his squishy eyes. "I could either hire clinicians and teach them to be artists, or I could hire artists and teach them how to be clinicians." Singer chose the latter route, and took out a series of classified ads asking one simple question: "Can you paint like an Italian master?"
"I wanted to find people who really understand color," Singer says as he demonstrates how the pigments in his artificial eyes are actually sculpted into the silicone with pins, rather than painted onto the surface with brushes. "It's funny the way most people think about things," he says. "We know that plastic surgeons are skilled people with a medical degree. But does anybody who goes to one ever wonder if they've ever taken an art class in their life? They should."