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Print Article: His eyes go beyond appearance

From The Oregonian; Working: How Oregonians earn their living
September 4, 2006

By Alex Pulaski
Photos by Michael Rubenstein

Fred Harwin paints irises. And pupils. And the whites of eyes.

Lose an eye, as Aric Adkins of Coos Bay did three years ago, and life seats you across from Harwin in his Northwest Portland office, watching him dip a brush into acrylic and up to a dozen bottles of dry pigment. In Harwin's fingers rests a hard white object about the shape of a halved walnut, not at all the round gumball of Hollywood imagining.

Harwin is not a doctor. He cannot replace lost vision. What he does do, three days a week, is restore the self-confidence that clients have lost after strangers avert their own eyes before they can register pity.

"It's pretty importantů.my appearance," Adkins says.

Harwin didn't set out to become an ocularist. He studied architecture, drawing and painting. He illustrated medical books and joined the faculty at Oregon Health & Science University.

The Devers Eye Institute recruited him in 1979 to make prosthetic eyes. Years later, he set out on his own. With passing years, he has honed skills of illustration and illusion, even as his own sight fades with age, as his glasses and magnifying glass attest.

At 64, he says he's better than ever, tirelessly chattering at clients, worrying about the prosthetic's fit, laboring for the right color, finely brushing and carving a personal symbol identifying the new eyeball's top. Some want a horseshoe or a shamrock. Adkins asked for a blue peace sign.

"This is very detailed work, and I enjoy it because it helps others," Harwin said. "When I get up in the morning, even if I don't feel well, I know someone is depending on me."

"One thing I like is if it doesn't work out, it isn't like surgery. I can go back and make another eye."

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