Sharon McConnell Dickerson - From Blues to Bliss
By Andrea Brown Ross
Photography by Andrea Brown Ross and Tennessee Arts Commission
An unimaginable diagnosis led Sharon McConnell Dickerson to a new career in art that has brought international acclaim.
When artist Sharon McConnell Dickerson began losing her eyesight, she gained an unexpected insight into the world of art.
Dickerson began working on lifecast sculptures in the early 2000s with Blues Hall of Fame legend John Hammond. Lifecasts are the exact replications of a human form or object. One of Dickerson’s more recent casts, and likely final cast, replicates the hands of blues musician Johnny Winter. In the years in between, Dickerson has experienced a close-up look with dozens of blues artists, in spite of her loss of eyesight. In fact, it’s her loss of eyesight that was a catalyst for her unique journey.
“God decides,” says Dickerson when she explains how artists seem to be serendipitously chosen to participate. “The opportunity comes from the musicians themselves.
“A lifecast sculpture is such a personal piece. It’s more than their music and photos. It’s the human recording of their expressions and life lines. Their spirit is captured. It’s intangible, and so evident of their lives, not like a death mask,” elaborates Dickerson.
Her opinion is based on the feedback from family members and others that have experienced her life casts. When the late T Model Ford’s wife saw her husband’s lifecast for the first time in an exhibit, she cried. His wife just cried and touched his face, shares Dickerson. She even shared the story about how he got a scar on his face.
Another time, a blind musician saw the life cast of KoKo Taylor, of whom he was a huge fan. As he ran his hands over her face, he teared up. “So this is what my girl looks like,” Dickerson recalls him saying.
Much like blues musicians who lament life’s trials and tribulations, Dickerson’s own life took an unexpected turn that led her to an artistic path. While working as a flight attendant on private planes for corporate magnates and industry leaders, including then real-estate tycoon Donald Trump, she awoke one morning in Chicago and couldn’t see very well. Only in her 20s, she was beginning to lose her eyesight. She would eventually be diagnosed in the late 1990s with Uveitis, a degenerative eye disease.
Realizing she would eventually have to make a career change, she decided to consider sculpting.
“At that time, I had had narrowed down my choices of where to start the next chapter of my life: Bozeman, Montana; Caramel Valley, California; or Santa Fe, New Mexico. Ultimately, I decided to move to Santa Fe,” she says.
As Dickerson sought private tutorials from friends who were famous artists in their own right, she valued their feedback on her work. Perhaps her greatest mentor has been the internationally renowned artist Michael Naranjo. Inspired by his Native American heritage, Naranjo creates beautiful bronze sculptures without the use of his right hand or eyesight, as he was permanently injured during the Vietnam War.
“Michael really motivated me and gave me hope. He was my reference as to what could be possible. In fact, he gave me my first show, which included eight bronze pieces there in Santa Fe,” remembers Dickerson.
As Dickerson continued to fine tune her own artistic style and her eyesight continued to fade, she decided it was time for another move. Her love of another artistic expression – music – would lead her to Como, Mississippi in December 2006.
“God brought me here. I was moving closer to the blues, the culture, and the people I loved,” she explained. “I’m inspired by the blues. I wanted to learn more about the men and women behind the music I loved.”
Como is home to a handful of blues artists such as Fred McDowell, Othar “Otha” Turner, Jesse Mae Hemphill, and Napoleon Strickland. Como was also home to Dickerson’s future husband, David. They met in 2008 and eventually married.
Opportunities continued to present themselves for Dickerson to create her lifecast sculptures. To date, she has created masks and hand casts for more then 60 blues performers, including Bo Diddley.
The process of creating the life casts is the same process used by special effects artists, according to Dickerson. Molding materials, like the ones dentists use to make dental impressions, are used.
“If you make a good mold, you get a perfect cast,” says Dickerson. She prefers her subjects to be straight up, not lying down, as she applies material to their faces. And she doesn’t use straws for the nostrils as other artists do.
“This is an exact science. You only have about 3 minutes to apply the materials. The material is very sensitive and time is of the essence,” she emphasizes.
From there, Dickerson follows a series of steps that creates casts as unique as the musicians themselves. The oldest musician she cast was Otha Turner. Turner, known in the world of blues for his handmade fifes, was 96 years old at the time. Dickerson worked on his cast just weeks prior to his death.
“It was a memorable day. The Public Broadcasting Show, ‘Mississippi Roads,’ was here taping. It turned into an all day event,” she shares.
“I presented Otha’s family with his bronze mask at the first Sunflower River Blues and Gospel Festival in Clarksdale (Mississippi), in which he did not perform,” continues Dickerson.
She has also donated some of her original casts to Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi. They are located in the Ewing building on campus, across from the Grammy Museum.
Dickerson’s exhibits have toured throughout the United States and twice in France. She currently has an exhibit at the recently opened Mississippi Arts and Entertainment Museum (MAX) in Meridian, Mississippi. Her exhibit is an audio tour in which patrons will get to touch the masks.
“People will have the chance to feel what I felt. There’s just certain things your eyes won’t pick up. I like people to have that tactile experience,” she says.
“It’s been a two-year process. I’ll have some of my bronze masks on display, and Otha will be there, too,” Dickerson shares.
While her exhibit will run through the end of August, guests also will find Dickerson on the museum’s list of Legends. According to the museum, “to be considered as a Mississippi Legend, artists must have a strong connection to the state of Mississippi — either by birth, moving to the state at a young age, or calling Mississippi home for a significant portion of their career.”
As Dickerson’s currently pursues other artistic endeavors, in particular with fellow artist, Terri Massey, she treasures the experiences that have brought her to this point, both personally and professionally.
“My life has gone from blues to bliss!” she exclaims.
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