Maddie Singer has a gift for helping others that is both art and science.
The University of Tennessee Health Science Center instructor is an anaplastologist, helping disfigured patients by creating remarkably realistic prosthetics that are astounding to behold.
Anaplastology is a clinical profession that provides reconstructive and custom prostheses to restore the normal appearance of patients who have malformed, disfigured or missing parts of the face or body. Singer’s intricate work is an evolution from her days in Hollywood, when her job involved turning actors into monsters and space aliens.
Recently, Singer was showing visitors display boxes with examples of her handiwork of orbital, nose and ear prostheses. “Most subjects I work with have skin cancer,” she said. “I do quite a few nasal and auricular prosthetics.” She also works with patients who have other diseases or have suffered trauma.
Singer said people are surprised at how realistic her work looks. “Think about how many variables are required to have a nose seamlessly fit on your face. It’s the center of focus.” It takes considerable skill to hide the edges so they blend in naturally. “And if you look at the paint jobs you’ll notice mottling, a spatter technique,” she said. “I’ll use toothbrushes or airbrushes to make it look real. I’ll purposely put in a dark spot to make it imperfect, so it looks more real. When I do an orbital, I hand-punch each hair in and will even do eye makeup, like an eyeliner, and add freckles and veins. That really brings it to life.”
Singer’s creative background working on “The X-Files” and “Buffy the Vampire Slayer,” among numerous other television and film productions, opened the way for her to become a prosthetics innovator and inventor. In 2003, she started working with UTHSC’s postgraduate program in prosthodontics. She is director of anaplastology, an instructor in the UTHSC College of Dentistry’s Department of Prosthodontics and works in the Advanced Prosthodontics Program.
Her work has more than impressed Michael Dustin Hale. The 29-year-old former Marine was in an automobile accident and lost his left external ear. While he was getting treatment at the VA, someone recommended he see Singer. They first tried an adhesive ear, but that proved impractical, so Hale got magnetic retention implants behind his ear. Singer created a prosthetic ear that clicks effortlessly into place and looks as real as it can be. “When I got the ear I felt like I got a piece of me coming back,” Hale said. “It gave me a positive outlook.”
For several months after the accident, Hale was pretty low. “I didn’t want to go outside and do anything, partly because I was wrapped up like a mummy. I got in this groove of staying home, until one day I snapped out of it. I told myself that I’m the best-looking person on the planet and nobody can tell me any different.”
Sitting in an examining room, Singer was checking how the ear was holding out after three months of use and asked her patient, “You show it off a lot?” Hale grinned and admitted he has fun with it. “Since it’s magnetized, I’ll put it in different places, like sticking it on people’s car door handles. My girlfriend will say, ‘please don’t do that, we’re going in this restaurant.’ ”
Hale said Singer’s work has helped him tremendously inside and out. “I’m getting back to the same Dustin,” he said. “It has been therapeutic, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.”
There’s an easy back-and-forth between Singer and Hale, something the anaplastologist feels is an important part of what she does. “Every patient is someone I’ll know for many years,” she said.
That, in part, is why she makes a careful assessment of the patient when he or she comes in. Singer said the candidate for a prosthesis should be able to take care of it, have the dexterity to put it on, and be responsible in coming to appointments.
The next step is making an impression of the defect site and doing a sculpture with a dental base plate wax. “I pigment that with makeup to make different flesh tones,” she said. “The patient can see it and it gives them confidence.”
When it’s approved by Singer and the patient, the final sculpting is done. “I try to accomplish as much as I can in single sessions because most of my patients don’t live close by,” she said. “I’m pretty fast when it comes to sculpting. I take a color sample of their base skin tone and then I’ll finish the sculpture, make molds and cast the silicone. The patient comes in and I make sure it fits right and retention is going to work. When it’s correct, I paint it with the patient present.”
Singer teaches the patient how to use it, and that can be a challenge. “It’s sometimes difficult for them to have dexterity, and I have follow ups to make sure they’re using it correctly. I also tell people to keep out of the sun, not only for their health, but because skin changes.”
Her view of the prosthetic is that it is a totem. “It represents what they think they need in order to feel whole again,” she said. “I’m taking the power away from this totem in the construction of this prosthesis, of this totem. It takes away its power of necessity, and that’s why patients tell everybody they have a prosthetic.
Thank the original “Planet of the Apes” movie for getting Singer into her calling. “I was fascinated by how they could make people look like apes, and I devoted my entire teenage life to learning special effects makeup,” she said. “I took out every book in the library and taught myself to do prosthetic makeup.” She studied film at New York University, doing makeup for student films.
While at NYU, she went to a veterans hospital to see what was being done with prosthetics. “They were awesome and let me check it out,” she said. “That was the first time I’d seen silicone prosthetics. The prosthetics made for film and television were made out of foam rubber, but it’s opaque and doesn’t really emulate the qualities of skin. Silicone had an aesthetic that could replicate the quality of skin better than anything I’d ever seen.”
Later in California, Singer took advantage of Dow Corning’s interest in getting silicone into the film industry by learning all she could about it and pioneering one of the first silicone prosthetic systems in Hollywood. “I invented a product called Third Degree, which made me some money,” she said, “and I decided I wanted to learn anaplastology.”
When she came to Memphis in 2003 to begin her studies, she taught sculpture at the Memphis College of Art for a time, and has been refining her research and work. She developed a silicone artificial eye and has spoken at anaplastology conferences around the world. “I’ve been really fortunate,” she said. “I’ve been involved with the university for 13 years, and I’ve been full time here going on two years.”
Singer’s talents are on display in the College of Dentistry Building on campus for all to see. She noticed that there was no sculpture of former governor Dr. Winfield C. Dunn in the building, although he has contributed significantly to it over the years, so much so that the building at 875 Union Avenue is named for him. She proposed doing a bust of Gov. Dunn, and got permission to create the sculpture that was cast in bronze for prominent display in the lobby of the building. The bust was unveiled Aug. 15 during a ceremony with Gov. Dunn. “Maddie, I have to say, you took nothing and made something out of it,” the former governor said, upon seeing the likeness.
As it happened, Philip A. Wenk, DDS ’77, the president and CEO of Delta Dental, who is also deeply involved in the College of Dentistry, saw Singer’s sculpture of Dunn and was impressed. Timothy L. Hottel, DDS, MS, MBA, dean of the College of Dentistry, felt that Wenk, whose Delta Dental is the single largest donor to the college, should also have a bust. So Singer sculpted another that will be displayed in a new dentistry building soon to begin construction on campus.
“It takes an average of a month to do one,” she said. “There are a lot of measurements and using scale references. I want people to marvel at the likeness.”
For Singer, blending art and science has a huge payoff. “My patients are proud of the art that makes them whole again,” she said. “They wear my art proudly and that makes me happy.”
For more information about Singer’s work or to contact her: 901-517-8198.
Reporter Jon Sparks wrote this story. Photos are by Cindy Deaton.