Ocularist John Stolpe Explains the Art Involved in Making Artificial Eyes
Although people started making artificial eyes as early as 2900 - 2800 B.C., the sophistication of the art form — and it is most certainly that — peaked at the turn of the previous century, when French and German craftsmen perfected techniques for producing glass eyes. Devising secret methodologies for creating realistic-looking irises and lenses since the 1700s, their ingenuity and skill went unmatched for nearly two centuries.
Artificial eyes made out of acrylic, however, were invented thanks to the United States Army Medical Corps, which put together a team tasked with figuring out a way to manufacture them using plastic during WWII, when glass was no longer obtainable from Europe. "Frederick Lewis was chosen to be part of that program." He began working on a prosthetic eye made out of acrylic, the innovation proved that new and efficient materials could replace old glass technology.
Lewis was passionate about his invention, which he leveraged into a career that spanned six decades after the end of the war. Settling in Los Angeles in 1946, he opened offices in Beverly Hills, Tarzana, and Santa Barbara. His daughter followed in Lewis’ footsteps, as did his grandson John Stolpe, the owner and chief ocularist at Advanced Artificial Eyes. All three generations elevated the profession by pioneering new techniques.
Stolpe, though, may be responsible for creating the most revolutionary of these. Relying on technologies that his predecessors had no access to, the sought-out ocularist has secured two major patents and is working on projects that may earn him another. ARTpublika Magazine had the pleasure of speaking with John Stolpe to learn about his work, inventions, and the family legacy he never thought he’d continue.
So, you’re a third generation ocularist?
Yes, my grand-dad was a dental tech during WWII. The Germans and the Italians kept all of the glass that the world used to make artificial eyes for their war efforts and wouldn’t export it to the states. So, Americans weren’t able to get prosthetic eyes around the 40s.
Acrylic glass had been invented around the mid-20s. Because of its clarity, its ability to be molded, and the ability for tears to flow over it comfortably without making the eye feel really dry, ocularists found that acrylic was well tolerated by the body and was, therefore, well suited for making prosthetics.
My grand-dad experimented with a bunch of things in the army, and when he came out to Los Angeles in 1946, he started his practice in Beverly Hills. He made eyes for Sammy Davis Jr. (1921 - 1990), Peter Falk (1927 - 2011), and a lot of [other] famous people. But he also did hands, noses, ears, etc.
I actually got to work with my grandfather after graduating from college, but he passed away from a heart-attack shortly thereafter, which immediately thrust me into the profession. My mother, who took over his Beverly Hills operation, asked me to help her stabilize the practice. I wasn’t interested in becoming an ocularist, I just wanted to help my family.
I graduated from the University of Southern California with a degree in economics and a philosophy: Don’t do work that a machine can do for you. With the technological revolution that we’re living through, not utilizing the power of machinery is just foolish. And that’s the philosophy I brought with me to the practice.
My grandfather, along with my mother, had invented a technique for digitally reproducing the human iris. There were other people who had made digital irises as well. But, like a piece of artwork that’s exposed to too much light, the colors would degrade really quickly. This gave digital irises a bad reputation.
But, we were able to find the right chemistry for making the colors stable for long periods of time. I essentially upgraded what my grandfather had created, which was the initial version of a digital iris. I was able to implement a color-accurate printing system and started using it within my mother’s practice.
We were able to print with higher resolution and get not just the base color of the eye, but all intricacies, including structures, patterns, and details that people were not able to paint by hand. I mean, we print at 300 dots per inch and nobody can paint that fine.
[By using this printing system,] I could focus on the fit, function, and the polishing of the eye, as well as all the other details, without necessarily having to worry so much about the color reproduction. That’s when I became interested in the field.
Is it true that you are the first person to get certified as an ocularist using digital tools?
I am the only ocularist in the world who has ever taken the test digitally and passed.
Was your economics background the reason you decided to do this?
Yeah. Again, I believe in not doing the work a machine can do for me. I noticed that digital printing was evolving and getting so much better. And, when you’re making an eye for somebody, the hardest part is often reproducing the human iris. My feeling was that if I could eliminate the problem in reproducing the human iris then I can elevate my profession by focusing on the other details, like getting the veins right, or matching the white in their eye, or getting a good impression of the eye and then following that impression all the way through to the final prosthesis.
This gives me time to sit down and focus on the human aspect as well as the artistic details. I think that elevates the quality of what you can do to ultimately help a human being, which is what we’re here to do: make them feel confident, make them feel natural, make them feel as whole again as they can be.
What do you need to make an impression of the eye?
Essentially, I use dental molding material, which is a room-temperature-curing silicone. So, to mold the mouth or a tooth, a dentist takes a dental tray, puts this material inside, inserts the tray in your mouth and has you bite down, and then lets it sit. I do the same thing with the human eye, but with an eye tray.
The tray used by ocularists mimics the shape of their good eye in the front, while the back gets filled in with silicon that gently releases off the eye, doesn’t cause irritation, and is very well tolerated by the body. Some call [the resulting mold] a fingerprint of the eye, since it gives us the exact contour and every little nook and fold of the eye, so we can capture it with an impression.
The prosthetic we make is a flushed fit, so that the pressure of the prosthesis is equally distributed over the eye, which makes it more comfortable. It goes on top of the damaged eye and moves well with the eye, so motion is improved since it’s sitting on top of the tissue and is not sliding around. You don’t get a lot of extra friction, which causes a lot of irritation.
What drew you to this profession?
I was born and raised around this profession, so, without a doubt, I knew I never wanted to do this. And now, I am passionately in love with this job.
As an economist, I wanted to help change the world with good business. I was looking more towards the investment side of things, like being like a hedge fund manager. But, when I was working with my grandfather, I realized the value that we were creating for people, and it was beautiful. We are raising the bar in our profession with the work that we’re doing and we’re forcing even other ocularists, who must hand paint, to raise their quality too.
Do you consider yourself an artist?
I’ve never considered myself an artist. But one of my mentors, Frederick Harwin, is one of the finest artists in the world. My grandfather told me to work with Fred Harwin, who was a friend of his. So, Fred and I had become friends. Though Fred is retired, he’s a little bit more experienced in the profession than many. We worked together, and he and I developed a dilating pupil, where there’s an illusion of the pupil actually growing as the light darkens in the room.
How did you do that?
Well, Fred used to hand paint all this stuff, and I kind of threw the idea out to him at a couple of meetings over the years and said: “Hey Fred, don’t you think we might be able to do that digitally?” He initially rejected that idea but over a couple of years, he started thinking about it.
When he rejected the idea, did he give you a reason as to why?
Because it wasn’t three-dimensional.
He used to layer the paintings, putting the larger pupil underneath and painting over on the second layer. He would paint so that the light would kind of bounce around and reflect and refract within the depth in between the big pupil and the overpainting. So, his initial feeling was that you had to have that depth to make this work.
We worked on it for almost three years to create the right dot pattern. What we do is we put an irregular set of dots around the pupil so that the human eye does not pick it up, but the human brain does. So, we created almost like a paisley pattern of black spots; as the light darkens within that collarette area, your brain fills in the space between the black dots and sees it as one large black circle.
We ended up getting a US patent for the dilating pupil last year, or the year before that, and I’ve gone on to help quite a few people with it.
What do you do for fun when you’re not making eyes?
I’m a family man. I’ve got a six-year-old and a four-year-old and they’re my play buddies. They’re the people I like spending my time with. As well as my wife, and close friends.
Do your kids know more about eyes than most other kids?
Absolutely. I’m always the guy who’s saying: “Hey kids, put those sticks down! No stick battles.” I find myself irritating people at the park, just saying: “It’s awfully dangerous what you’re doing!” People look at me like: Who the hell are you? But, I do make artificial eyes for a living.
How do you envision the future of your industry?
I wish we were encouraged and able to get more into things like 3D-printing, 3D-design, and manufacturing. In my profession, I desire to create a true computer aided design that manufactures a prosthetic eye.
Can you elaborate on what that means?
I want to focus on manufacturing the prosthetic digitally, knowing that once I do, that shape can be manipulated to hold all sorts of technology.
I collaborate with a company called Mojo Vision, and they’re working on smart contact lenses; they’ve actually used a digital print to hide their smart contact, and if they had the space of a full prosthetic eye, they could do some incredible things.
I’m excited for the future of eyes and technology. It would be amazing to integrate a prosthetic with the brain, like Elon Musk’s Neuralink, which is fascinating to me. If we can do that for a tiny prosthetic eye, I imagine we can do that with other body parts too.
How do you capture all of the colors in the eyes?
So, computers are great and they can get pretty close, but you need a trained eye to observe the details of color. It takes years of training to look and see the little subtleties, and then to follow and reproduce them. I have state of the art cameras and all of the latest color matching stuff, frankly none can even come close to my eye.
What are the biggest misconceptions about your job?
Without a doubt that these are glass eyes. Everybody calls prosthetic eyes glass eyes, and they haven’t been glass since the 40s. So, there’s a tremendous amount of misinformation about eyes. Another thing is that people think they have to have their eyes removed to get nice and fitted prosthetics. Most of my patients have damaged or disfigured eyes. We use scleral shells, they’re basically prosthetic eyes, but they are like a shell — you don’t need to remove the eye to use them.
Is there anything you’d like for people to know about your profession that hasn’t been addressed?
I’d like them to know that we exist! There are people, like me, in the background who are working on problems that most people will never understand or have to deal with.