Portland Ocularist Fred Harwin Is Know Worldwide For His Custom-Made Prosthetic Eyes

Fred Harwin is Portland's Best Visual Artist.

(Courtesy of Sara Harwin)

Fred Harwin has the soul of an artist, the technique of a master craftsman—and a remarkable eye for eyes.

For the past 40 years, Harwin has been Portland's premier ocularist, painting and fitting hardened acrylic replacement orbs to approximate his patients' primary gaze. Ever since an award-winning 2003 film short starring Harwin captivated the Sundance Film Festival, he's almost certainly the best-known practitioner in his field in the world.

From a background in fine arts, Harwin began a successful career as medical illustrator, co-authoring the seminal Illustrated Handbook of Cardiac Surgery with artificial heart valve pioneer Albert Starr before discovering his life's calling within the rarefied realm of ocular prosthetics.

"Creating an artificial replica of someone's seeing eye that looks good and works well—that's a form of art," he says.

It's also a still vital service little changed since acrylic replaced glass as the material of choice during World War II. Though 3D printing has greatly streamlined the process in other areas of prosthetics, Harwin explains that computer-generated irises "do not reflect or refract light close to what can be done by the slow way of building up layers over layers by hand." A two-dimensional print simply won't look real.

But realism is not always what the customer wants. And in such cases, Harwin is happy to oblige.

There was the cat eye for a young woman whose promoter wanted her to embody a panther in a photo shoot. There was the saxophonist who wanted his instrument emblazoned on the prosthesis. For a professional wrestler down in Georgia, Harwin made an eye that was black with a red star in the center.

And then there was the the prison inmate who wanted something so strange Harwin can't even describe it:  "He had so much scar tissue around the eye and wanted something outrageous. I do believe an individual has right of choice based on experience as to what might suit them the best. He was a lifer—there no matter what. He was already not fitting in. And we had a good time coming up with something that was just wild."

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