The eye is about the size of a quarter, resting gently in Kurt Jahrling’s hand as he adds faint washes of yellow and blue to the white surface. The ocularist has already laid tiny, reddish-pink threads of silk over the surface to mimic the curves of blood vessels, tiny rivers winding from either corner toward the iris. A hazel centerpiece surrounds a black dot meant to mimic the pupil; as the finishing touch, he adds the arcus, a grey ring that hugs the outer edge of some aging irises.
The result is an astoundingly close approximation of the missing right eye of a 63-year-old Bostonian named Kevin. Kevin had his eye surgically removed eight months prior. Today, he’ll wear this tiny piece of acrylic home: an illusion, a practical placeholder, and a little piece of art.
When made by a skilled ocularist, a prosthetic eye becomes a part of its wearer. “I don’t think of it as alien, absurd, weird, or anything,” says Selina Mills, the author of Life Unseen, a book about the history of blindness and her own experience with it. “It’s just a part of me. I think people would like to make it all mystical and mythical but actually it’s not at all.” Mills’s eye, made by the British ocularist Paula Gladden, is so good that an emergency-room doctor once didn’t realize it was false and couldn’t figure out why it wasn’t responding to light. She doesn’t even notice it when it’s in, almost like wearing a contact lens.