Artist, lecturer, and teacher Sharon McConnell-Dickerson talks about the dimensions and faces of Blues

"To me the blues means being able to talk about life’s struggles in song. It is tempered sometimes with lively lyrics and rhythm. Blues encompasses everything into one song: spirit, life, work, darkness, sadness, joy, and hope. And it always comes from the heart."

Sharon McConnell-Dickerson:

Feel The HeART Of Blues

Sharon McConnell-Dickerson is an artist, lecturer, teacher, and speaker. Her work is featured in numerous exhibitions and included in museum, university, and private art collections. Originally from New England, she worked as a flight attendant and chef on corporate jets. After working in the corporate world for seven years, a turn in her life took place at the age of twenty- seven. She woke up in Chicago blind. She was eventually diagnosed with Uveitis, a degenerative eye disease. After several years of surgeries and treatments she became involved with sculpture. "Sculpture is the vehicle by which I access a lost sense," she says. She moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico in 1996 to study all aspects of art. Taking a traditional approach, she learned from teachers and mentors including Arlene Siegel, Robert Refvem, Sam Scott, Dean Ericson, Ulrich Franzen, and Agnes Martin. She also went to Paris, France. There with the assistance of the curators and education directors of the museums and galleries did intense hands on sculpture and art studies in premier galleries and museums. After only ten months of study, she had produced a body of work consisting of eight bronze sculptures. Her earliest influence was Native American Blind Sculptor Michael Naranjo who showed her what was possible and rewarded her with her first solo exhibition at the Moxley, Ross, Naranjo Gallery.

Her first life-sized work is reminiscent of French figurative sculptor Maillol. Her life-cast work is in the same tradition and methods of master life caster George Segal. It is for her life-masks of legendary blues musicians that McConnell-Dickerson is best known. Her project took root and found a strong direction of its own, leading her to create masks of fifty-two musicians. This body of work has been exhibited in the New Mexico State Capitol Rotunda, the Albuquerque Museum, Willie Dixon’s Blues Heaven Foundation in Chicago, Blind Faith Gallery in Clarksdale, Mississippi, The Blues Music Awards in Memphis; the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis; the Mississippi Arts Center in Jackson, Mississippi; the Tunica Museum in Tunica, Mississippi; Blues Passions Festival in Cognac, France, and at the Galerie le Clos d’Epicure in Cahors, France. Another edition of 40 masks are also touring the U.S. She donated the original life-casts to the Delta State University Archives. Now almost totally blind, Sharon is seeking venues to exhibit her works, conducting life-casting workshops, lectures, and demonstrations, and travelling. She is also painting large scale minimalist works in oil on linen. Sharon insists that all of her exhibits (with the exception of the originals) be fully accessible to people with disabilities, and are please touch exhibits. Sharon moved to Mississippi in 2006, where she met her husband David. They, along with her guide-dog Avatar are residents of Como, Mississippi.

Interview by Michael Limnios

What do you learn about yourself from the blues music and culture? What does the blues mean to you?

I learned that I really didn’t know where the music came from. Until I started the project of life casting the musicians, visiting them in their home environment, I didn’t know the conditions under which some of them lived. When it gets right down to it, I haven’t experienced that kind of blues. I’m really grateful for them having shared so much of their lives. Their personal friendships have enriched my life and inspired me to keep doing this work today. I learned that they thought the work that I am doing is important to them. They wanted their faces to be remembered.

To me the blues means being able to talk about life’s struggles in song. It is tempered sometimes with lively lyrics and rhythm. Blues encompasses everything into one song: spirit, life, work, darkness, sadness, joy, and hope. And it always comes from the heart.

How do you describe your artwork philosophy and mission? How does music affect your mood and inspiration?

My philosophy and approach to my art work often involve translating an intangible spirit within a human being. That means capturing and translating what is unseen into a tangible physical form through life casting a person’s face, hands, or body. Flesh and tone becomes white, luminous plaster. My mission is to preserve and present the viewer a chance to discover the animating force behind the mask.  Another essential part of the experience is to touch them. I always insist exhibits of these life casts be touched. What you can FEEL is the unseen spirit residue and what that person wanted others to know and remember about them.

I love and have a passion for all kinds of music. It is a big part of my life and work. I always ask the person I’m working with what they would like to listen to or if they would prefer silence. If I am working alone on a sculpture or painting, I choose the genre, artist and song list based upon what I want to present. Normally when I paint I do not listen to any music. Instead I focus on the sound the brush on the canvas.

"I would go back to the southern United States during the 1930’s with books written by various recordings of musicians from all over the world from the late sixties up to the present." Artwork by Sharon McConnell-Dickerson / David "Honeyboy" Edwards & Robert Lockwood, Jr.

What touched (emotionally) you from bluesmen faces? What is the relationship between visual arts with music?

Touching and learning someone’s face as I do is an intimate process for both the model and the artist. Before I apply the molding materials, I feel every part of their face, head, neck and ears. I refer to this as “facetime”. This gives me a tactile image of what I will be covering later. There are varied responses to this thorough exploration. Most of the time we are silent and getting to know each other. An unspoken conversation begins. We are getting to know each other. At first our breath is held for a moment. Meeting a person and artist whose music has touched my soul has sometimes made me nervous and my touch tentative. I suspect not many of the musicians were used to having their faces touched by someone they don’t know. This can be awkward. A sigh and recognition of connective energy follows the initial awkwardness. There is a certain peace that comes to both us. The other reaction I have had either before or shortly after touching the face of my model has been a humorous comment about the features of their face (the attractiveness or lack thereof) that laughter follows and breaks through their initial uncomfortable feeling. Next, is the fact that they know that I am blind but still trust me to keep them safe while covering their entire face, and ears but also later with their immortalized life images. As many I have worked with pass on, I feel the sadness and weight of my responsibility. The responsibility of where and how they are presented in exhibitions. I am also careful about what private collectors and museums acquire the special limited editions of their masks as I had promised them. 

Musical recordings capture the exact sounds expressed in that moment.  The life cast is a unique recording in itself ; capturing the  very pores, scars, lines of life, hair, and emotion of their human form in that moment. I have been told by others and know for myself that when you touch them, you discover the intimate exchange of the collaboration and sense a careful and loving artist’s hand for her model and the spirited response of the musician.  How music and this visual art relate is being expressed by the musicians themselves and is very personal. I think the sound engineer and producer are witness to and are catalysts in the process of the music. In the same way, I am witness to and a catalyst in the three dimensional recording of their human form.

How has the Blues music and culture influenced your way of thinking of the world and the journeys you have taken?    Artwork by Sharon / Bobby "Blue" Bland

I grew up in the northeast part of the U.S. which is culturally far different from the southeast. Although music was an important part of my life, I had not been exposed to authentic blues music until after I moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico to study art. A friend introduced me to old school blues, and I was taken to it immediately. I had not known it, but I found that all music is rooted in the blues. Maybe I was attracted to the blues because I had been going through a hard time myself – losing my sight, going through several surgeries, taking medication, and being told that there was nothing else to be done.  The doctors told me I would eventually lose all sight. I could now identify with the words of blues music. I could identify with the struggles that these musicians are singing about. I recognized for the first time a real struggle in life. Because I was already doing life-casts, another friend suggested that I try to get in touch with some of the musicians and preserve the faces of the music I love. Many were getting older and leaving us. 

Sixteen years ago I began traveling to visit them and do their life casts.  We met mostly in their homes or museums. I worked with Johnny Winter on his tour bus. Several musicians came to my home studio in Santa Fe when they were performing in the area. The people I met, and the culture and landscape I experienced along with the rich musical heritage, all inspired me to move to Como, Mississippi.  It is far different than anywhere I have been. It has caused me to reflect on other places, people and cultures I have experienced. I often wondered, “What is it about this simple place made such an impact on my life?” One reason and the most important is that I began to learn about different backgrounds, ethnicities, and lifestyles. I’ve been privileged to travel to many parts of the country, and to France, as part of my work. It continues to be a journey, not only physical travels, but also a journey of discovery of the rich cultural and musical heritage that we call The Blues.      

Which acquaintances have been the most important experiences? What was the best advice anyone ever gave you?

Every person I have met and cast have left indelible impressions on me.  Some were difficult at first. Some challenged me. Others were welcoming and encouraging. But they have all left me with such rich experiences. I have a deep appreciation for all of them. One that really stands out is Bobby “Blue” Bland. It was difficult to convince him to do it at first, but after we met, there was a deep bond. After he came out of the mask and we talked a little more, he told me that he felt I was an extra-ordinary person. I was not expecting that. He really touched my heart. That night he invited me onto the stage, told the audience about what we did together that day, and dedicated his show to me. I was so nervous my knees were shaking. If it hadn’t been for my guide-dog Bella, I would have needed someone to help me off the stage.

I once asked Clarence Fountain, of the Blind Boys of Alabama, some questions. I asked how he managed to do what he did. He grew up in a period of time in the south that was marked by prejudice. He was both black and blind. I asked him, “How did you go from that to becoming who you are today? How do you keep doing it? How am I going to make it?” He told me that you just have to just throw your legs out of bed, put your feet on the floor, and move. Then you will be on your way.  Clarence is a mover. I was told that he would run up and down through the audience when he performed. No cane, just moving!  Then another time, a time when I was very weak and distraught, a spiritual guide told me, “If you aren’t strong, get strong, and when you do, help someone else to get strong”. I’ve tried to live that, always trying to encourage other people who are struggling, reaching out especially to those with disabilities. But I think the very best advice is the Apostle Paul’s words, “Walk by faith, and not by sight.” (2nd Corinthians 5:7). I have to do that in order to “keep on moving” and to “help someone else to get strong”. I simply live and walk by faith. Not faith in myself, but faith in God that he has a plan, and will make a path for me.

"I think all music, and art, particularly blues music, are bridge builders. I doesn’t matter about a person’s race, where they come from, or what their beliefs are. Art breaks down barriers." Artwork by Sharon McConnell-Dickerson / Bobby Rush & Charlie Musselwhite

Are there any memories with blues musicians which you’d like to share with us? What has made you laugh?

Whoo-boy! Do you want to hear over 60 of them? I have a story for all of them. I have lots of stories about Pinetop Perkins. We developed a friendship over the years. Here is one story that comes to mind. It was the day after the Sunflower Blues Festival in Clarksdale. No one was around. Pinetop and I were sitting on a funky little bench in front of the Delta Blues Museum. He asked me if I wanted a cheeseburger. If you knew Pinetop, you know that there was always a couple of bags of McDonald’s cheeseburgers, fries, and apple pies somewhere close by. He called them “MacDaniels”. The person helping Pinetop brought us some MacDaniels, and I thought, “Wow, I’m sitting here having a cheeseburger with Pinetop Perkins.  No one around, just us.” He even slipped my guide dog some French fries. She became a tableside beggar from then on. When we finished eating, Pinetop lit up a cigarette.  He only smoked a little of it, stubbed it out, and slipped the rest of it between the plastic and the pack, dropped the pack back into his shirt pocket.  We went inside the museum, where they have an old, out of tune, upright piano in the back. We sat together on the bench, and he began playing in his famous boogie-woogie style. Just then, I smelled something burning. Then I remembered the cigarette that I thought he had put out. I yelled to him, “Pinetop, you’re smoking!” He looked at me with a big grin and said, “Yeah baby, I know!” He thought I meant he was “smokin’ the keys”.  I started slapping the pocket of his shirt to put it out.  The cigarette burned a hole in his pocket. 

I called Bobby Bland at home one time. His wife Willie answered the phone. After we finished talking, I asked if I could then talk to Bobby. She said, “Oh no.  He’s watching his program. Every day at this time he’s watching this program.” I don’t know what you call “daytime drama” in other parts of the world. Here in the US they’ve often been referred to as “soap operas”. I asked her what the name of the program, and she said it was called, “The Young and the Restless”.  Look it up on line and you’ll know why I think it’s funny that a blues man like Bobby Bland is watching a program that is generally watched by women.

What do you miss most nowadays from the blues of past? What are your hopes and fears for the future of?

The raw and organic expression heard in early blues roots music. Songs coming from an experience of people who lived in a past time and unique culture. The generation of musicians that played during that time are sadly leaving us. Some of the family members of the older blues men and women are carrying on the tradition, style and sound, but I can hear they are making it their own. Having come from a different experience in life, their blues naturally changed. What I don’t care for with some of the younger blues musicians today is they try to perfectly mimic the vocals and sound of the musicians by whom they are influenced.  With some exceptions, most don’t have the life experience to play the blues. Playing authentic blues, I feel, is experiential. Some of these kids are super talented but too studied.

I have hope that they will someday mature. The human condition that happens to us all will season their music.  They have talent, they just need time.

"My philosophy and approach to my art work often involve translating an intangible spirit within a human being. That means capturing and translating what is unseen into a tangible physical form through life casting a person’s face, hands, or body." Photo: McConnell-Dickerson & Little Milton

If you could change one thing in the musical world and it would become a reality, what would that be?

I would like to see musical artists who are playing blues music, or have been influenced by it, be more generous to those who have inspired them. Some of them or their families may be living in poverty and they need help. There are plenty of foundations out there that provide a way to do this. Some of those who have passed would not have had a proper funeral or even a headstone on their grave had it not been for generous fans.  An example is that The Rolling Stones provided funds for Hubert Sumlin’s funeral expenses and some of them played at his memorial.

What is the impact of Blues music and Art (general) to the racial, political and socio-cultural implications?

I think all music, and art, particularly blues music, are bridge builders. I doesn’t matter about a person’s race, where they come from, or what their beliefs are. Art breaks down barriers. I know people from around the country and around the world who are attracted to music, to art. It’s a universal language that should transcend everything else. 

What has been the hardest obstacle for you to overcome as a person and has this helped you become a better artist, lecturer, and teacher?

The progressive loss of my sight of course. But I wouldn’t have come to art had it not been for that. I think I would have continued travelling the world as I did as a flight attendant on private and corporate jets. I was in a world where there wasn’t much blues. Had I not gone blind I wouldn’t be an artist, lecturer, and teacher. Also, my blindness gives people that I work with or speak to a unique perspective of life. Hopefully people see through my blindness and see me as a person. That is important to me.

Where would you really want to go with a time machine and what memorabilia (records, books) would you put in?    (Photo: Sharon in Memphis, TN)

I would go back to the southern United States during the 1930’s with books written by various recordings of musicians from all over the world from the late sixties up to the present. I would go to listen to musicians like Ma Rainey, Memphis Minnie, Billie Holiday, Etta James, Robert Johnson, Blind Willie Johnson, and many more.  In places along the way I would look for and visit with some of the musicians I have cast and give them encouragement by telling them some things about their brighter days to come and that we would meet again in the future. When I met those I wasn’t able to cast and passed on before I began my project, I would say that First, some might not become famous during their lifetime but their lives and music would forever touch many hearts, inspire and influence and all kinds of music all over the world. Secondly, I would tell them about Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the future of equality and opportunities for African Americans and how there would be a black president elected in the year 2008. Finally, I would tell them about my life casting project with musicians and ask them if they would model for me.  

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