A series of masks of famous blues musicians' faces by blind sculptor Sharon McConnell-Dickerson, A Cast of Blues, will be on display in the Griot Museum of Black History until August 8. The multimedia exhibit includes not only 15 masks portraying the faces of musicians but also text panels detailing their stories, a listening station with each artist’s music, a short film showing McConnell-Dickerson in a casting session with a musician and 15 photographs of blues musicians and the venues in which they’ve performed by renown photographer Ken Murphy.
Photo courtesy of Sharon McConnell-Dickerson
It is often the case that the loss of one sense heightens a person’s ability to access other senses—and this couldn’t be better exemplified by anyone but Sharon McConnell-Dickerson. After waking up one morning visually impaired and later finding out she had Uveitis disease, a degenerative eye disease, McConnell-Dickerson had to leave her job as a flight attendant and move back to her parents’ home. While she was recuperating in her parents’ beach house in Maine, a friend of a friend paid the family a visit. He brought along some clay and suggested that McConnell-Dickerson experiment with the clay to form something with her hands.
“He thought the clay would be therapeutic, and he understood that sculpture is not just about seeing. My hands became my eyes. I immediately connected with the clay and decided to seek out teachers in order to begin a study of art,” she explains.
McConnell-Dickerson went to Santa Fe, New Mexico to learn about all aspects of art, studying privately under such artists as Arlene Siegel, Sam Scott, and Agnes Martin. She volunteered at art museums and galleries and focused on learning the business of art in addition to the craft itself.
Although she began with freehand modeling in clay, once McConnell-Dickerson was introduced to the life casting method, she found her new career. This method involves using specialized molding materials to create a cast directly on the skin of a live model.
“It was just incredible for me once I was able to feel my own face after it was cast in the medium. I hadn’t been able to see my face in the mirror for several years, and this life cast really captured my muscles, bones and even expressions.”
McConnell-Dickerson had been working with the life cast method for about a year when she reconnected with a friend, Greg Woodcox, who shared her own love for blues music.
“He basically said to me, ‘You know you do this life cast method and you’re really good at it, and you also love blues music, so why don’t you cast the faces of some of the blues musicians?'” McConnell-Dickerson explains.
The resulting project was a grassroots endeavor, as McConnell-Dickerson researched blues musicians, attended blues music festivals, and began developing connections with musicians who were interested in her project. It was at one of these festivals where she met Ken Murphy, the photographer whose work is included in the exhibit at the Griot Museum. Murphy is also an artist with a physical disability, as he lost his pointer finger while serving in the army and now uses his middle finger to take photographs. Murphy's photos add another dimension to the exhibit: a sense of animation, skin color and clothing, as well as the venues in which the artists performed.
Soon after McConnell-Dickerson began casting the faces of blues musicians, she invited several of them to come see the masks. As one completely blind musician was touching the faces of his contemporaries, “seeing” them for the first time, he began to cry. At that moment, McConnell-Dickerson realized that this was not only something that anyone could appreciate, but could also prove an especially important experience for those with visual impairments.
McConnell-Dickerson is passionate about keeping the exhibit entirely accessible: there is an audio tour of all text in the exhibit for those with visual impairments, masks are placed at a level that allows for those in wheelchairs to reach and touch the work, and there is a Braille element, so that those with visual impairments can determine the artist represented in each mask.
McConnell-Dickerson calls her work a “must-touch” exhibit because she wants visitors to be able to feel what she felt in her creation process.
While McConnell-Dickerson is now also creating large sculptures of horses using driftwood she finds on the banks of the Mississippi River and even working on a few paintings, she says that casting musicians will remain her life’s work. She has recently begun to expand into other genres of music, such as early rock n roll, with casting sessions set for Billy Peek, the St. Louis native guitar player for both Rod Stewart and Chuck Berry, as well as Chuck Lovell, the Rolling Stones’ keyboard player.
Photo courtesy of Sharon McConnell-Dickerson
A film crew has been following McConnell-Dickerson for the past 7 years, recording aspects of the blues project, including her casting sessions with various musicians and presentations at university arts classes. While there is not yet a release date for the full documentary, visitors to the exhibit at the Griot Museum can watch a portion of one of McConnell-Dickeron’s casting sessions to further understand her process.
Photo by Philip Waller
The exhibit will run at The Griot Museum of Black History until August 8 and admission is included with regular museum admission, $7.50 for adults and $3.75 for children 12 and under. For more information, please visit thegriotmuseum.com or call 314-241-7057.