When the blinds are open in the front room of the Victorian house in Como, a life-sized casting of a pure white woman can be seen with her arms raised ceremoniously over her head. At her feet is another life-sized figure, reclining on the floor.
“That’s me,” Sharon McConnell-Dickerson said. “At least what I think looks like me.”
McConnell is an artist, originally from New England. She molded the two figures herself, as well as the two faces hanging on the wall, the bronze sculpture in her hallway and the driftwood figures in her yard and carport.
But unlike most sculptors who push and ply their clay, fixing curves and angles with detail-oriented eyes, McConnell molds and checks her work entirely with her hands. She is almost completely blind. Art pulled her through part of the shock of her loss of sight, she said, but the Delta blues and ultimately God pulled her the rest of the way.
About 20 years ago, McConnell was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease called uveitis. She had been working as a chef on private, corporate jets and recalls waking up one morning in Chicago nearly blind. A thick fog seemed to have settled on her eyes. She went through multiple surgeries, drug treatments, even chemotherapy, but her eyes never responded.
“I started living pretty hard,” she said. “I had to see as much as I could.”
But her fast lifestyle didn’t help her, she said. It wasn’t until a friend introduced her to lifecasting, a process in which gauze and plaster or alginate are used to create molds from actual bodies, that her life took on a new purpose. She then became interested in sculpting and moved to Santa Fe to study under such sculptors as the world-renowned Agnes Martin.
What she could not see, she felt. By the quality of her art, it seems she can feel a lot. The male and female torsos in her backyard look exactly like the human body, showing the contours of bone and muscle. One miniature sculpture inside exactly mimics the pose of a reclining woman, with a hand laid lazily on her hip and hair cascading gracefully behind her shoulders.
To create her work, she pieces together memories of what she has seen in the past, with what her hands see as they feel. She can check her work through a small window of weak vision in the left corner of her left eye, but for the most part, she relies on her tactile abilities. Overall, her eyes detect only strong light, and large objects appear as blurs or vapors. But even that, she said, is quickly fading.
“This is my twilight,” she said. So now, after learning life casting and sculpting, she has begun painting.
Friend and local artist, Helen Argo, comes to McConnell’s home each week to guide her in painting. Argo is McConnell’s palette, mixing the colors she wants to use, and her teacher and encourager. As in sculpting, though, McConnell uses her hands, smearing and shaping slow-drying oil paints over giant canvases.
It’s a new part in her journey, Argo said, one in which she feels they will both learn.
McConnell has just begun painting, but already she hopes to have a piece for Como’s winter art show starting Jan. 18. Art is McConnell’s personal expression of thought and feeling, but it is also her personal ministry that she hopes God uses to inspire others. Although painting is the new phase in her art, it began with the Blues.
“The Blues led me to bliss,” she likes to say, “bliss” meaning faith in Jesus.
McConnell loved blues music, and in the early 2000s, she began casting the faces of blues musicians. “Cast of Blues,” as it’s called, is her most renowned and profound work. A collection of 58 musicians’ faces, cast in minute detail, has shown in locations across the country and state and is showing at the Tunica Museum through the end of December.
The project brought her through Como, and after feeling an inexplicable peace while walking downtown, she decided to move there. At the time, she simply thought it was her conscience attracting her to the little town, but once she moved, she began to notice the strong influence of the Christian religion around her.
“I was literally surrounded by churches,” she said. And as she began studying the Bible and going to church, she became convinced what she had always thought was her conscience, was actually God.
And as her sight continues to fade, she said it is God who keeps her going. There is a purpose in her art that is beyond making something beautiful now.
“Perhaps God had me go through it (loss of sight) to inspire others,” she said.
Photos by Phillip Waller // Story by Natalie Richardson