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Sharon Dickerson has a feel for the blues -- and a passion that transcends sight

 

Sharon McConnell Dickerson of Como is pictured with a lifecast of bluesman R.L. Burnside, one of her 58 masks musicians have sat for during the past 14 years. The collection, “A Cast of Blues,” has received international acclaim. Dickerson hopes to publish a book of art photography of the stunning collection, complete with biographies of each musician and personal stories of her time with them. Visit her Kickstarter page at kck.st/1q0A0QE.

Sharon McConnell Dickerson of Como is pictured with a lifecast of bluesman R.L. Burnside, one of her 58 masks musicians have sat for during the past 14 years. The collection, “A Cast of Blues,” has received international acclaim. Dickerson hopes to publish a book of art photography of the stunning collection, complete with biographies of each musician and personal stories of her time with them. Visit her Kickstarter page at kck.st/1q0A0QE. Photo by: Photo by Natalie Richardson/Mud and Magnolias Magazine

 

Dickerson’s casts include, from left, “Blind Mississippi Morris” Cummings, Othar Turner, Dorothy Moore and Eddie “The Chief” Clearwater.

Dickerson’s casts include, from left, “Blind Mississippi Morris” Cummings, Othar Turner, Dorothy Moore and Eddie “The Chief” Clearwater.
Photo by: Photo by Francoise Digel

 

Dickerson is pictured with musician Jimbo Mathus, a friend and former housemate.

Dickerson is pictured with musician Jimbo Mathus, a friend and former housemate.
Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

A lifecast of Othar Turner was made into a bronze.

A lifecast of Othar Turner was made into a bronze.
Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

Dickerson made a lifecast with Willie King backstage at the Delta Blues Museum.

Dickerson made a lifecast with Willie King backstage at the Delta Blues Museum.
Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

Dorothy Moore is one of the blueswomen Dickerson has cast.

Dorothy Moore is one of the blueswomen Dickerson has cast.
Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

John Hammond is the first blues musician Dickerson cast, in 2002.

John Hammond is the first blues musician Dickerson cast, in 2002.
Photo by: Courtesy photo

 

 

Jan Swoope

 

It only takes a few minutes' conversation with Sharon McConnell Dickerson, even on the phone, to suspect that she is an extraordinary soul.  

 

"In the blues world, I'm known as that blind lady that did those faces," she said, a smile in her voice. Dickerson is a figurative sculptor, lecturer, speaker and columnist who lives in Como. The small Panola County town about 110 miles northwest of Columbus. The road is familiar to the artist and her husband, David. They have enough extended family in the Golden Triangle to fill a barn or two. David is the brother of Rex and Rivers Dickerson, and the list grows from there.  

 

For the past 14 years, the sculptor has lifecast the faces of as many venerable blues figures as she can and created a singular archival treasure in the process. To date, there are nearly 60 faces in the collection, each one molded by hand as the musicians sat for her. 

 

"There are beautiful photographs and recordings of these people, but the three-dimensional lifecasts are a different kind of recording," explained Dickerson, chatting at length by phone as a friend drove her back to Como after a visit to Oxford Wednesday. Even unseen, she was vivid. "These capture bone, muscles, pores, scars and lines of life in a way that can't be seen through any other medium. The masks can be touched and experienced in a way a photograph or painting doesn't allow." 

 

 

 

Lifelines 

 

Dickerson, a New England native, moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico, in 1996 to study the arts. But at only 27, she was diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease that has taken virtually all of her sight.  

 

Her life began a new chapter when a friend introduced her to sculpting. 

 

"He came to my home and brought me a lump of clay, some tools and left me alone," she explained. "Three hours later, I had formed what was a self-portrait of myself. The clay transformed me ... " 

 

To pursue her concept of lifecasting the faces of the blues, a music she loves, Dickerson relocated to Mississippi -- to the hill country and the doorstep of the Delta, where the blues run deep and inspiration can flourish. She thought about those already gone -- like Robert Johnson, Charley Patton, Muddy Waters, John Lee Hooker and Howlin' Wolf -- and felt there was no time to waste. 

 

Her first cast was of John P. Hammond, in 2002. She has since lifecast Bo Diddley, Johnny Winter, Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin, Honeyboy Edwards, Bobby Blue Bland, Dorothy Moore, R.L. Burnside and a host of others. 

 

Traveling with an assistant and guide dog, Dickerson's casts have taken her from Santa Fe and the Delta, to Memphis, Jackson, Chicago, Seattle and beyond, wherever access with the musicians could be arranged. It has been exhausting, physically and financially, at times. But it wasn't about profit, it was about posterity, she said. 

 

What started as a quest to preserve a culture became a very personal journey. Each cast has been an intimate encounter, an intersecting with the personal lives of the men and women of the blues. 

 

 

 

Stories 

 

Memories and anecdotes amassed in 14 years are priceless to Dickerson. 

 

"Oh gosh, they're funny and some not so funny," she began. "It's what happens when you touch someone's face and work that closely with them." Conversations arise, and they are not about music. "It goes deeper than the skin because we feel each other -- when you're touching someone, covering their eyes, their ears, their mouth ... that takes a lot of trust." 

 

The material the sculptor uses directly on the skin is alginate, similar to that used for mask-making in the movie industry, as well as in dental molds.  

 

"I cast Morgan Freeman's face one time, and he said he'd had it done many times for films, but he told me he had never fallen asleep before," said Dickerson. The process is relaxing for many people. "Some say they could stay in there forever, just away from things -- that it felt safe, free from stimulations and distractions, just closing their eyes and having someone lovingly trace the lines of their face." 

 

Dickerson was able to cast R.L. Burnside in his kitchen in Holly Springs. After the materials were taken off his face and he cleaned up, he said, "I feel rejuvenated. I feel like a snake. I shed my skin. You took something off of me," the sculptor shared. 

 

When Tommy "T.C." Carter, blind since birth, first "saw" Dickerson's lifecast of blueswoman KoKo Taylor, it brought him to tears. It was the first time he knew what she really looked like. 

 

Dickerson and Bo Diddley hit it off during a casting in the musician's Santa Fe hotel room. Afterward, he played her a song and talked about this and that.  

 

Othar Turner was cast in 2003, just five weeks before he died. His cast was made into a bronze, which Dickerson presented to his family.  

 

"When I met Othar Turner, neither of us could understand what the other was saying, but our hearts did," said the artist. 

 

 

 

Remembering Willie 

 

And, of course, there was Willie King, whose cast was made backstage at the Delta Blues Museum in Clarksdale. He was dear and sweet, Dickerson remembers. 

 

Later, in a video, the late bluesman who was beloved by many in the Golden Triangle, said of Dickerson, "She is very sacred. She was God-sent for a good reason, to do what she's done. ... I'm loving what the young lady's doing, trying to preserve the past ... and passing it on down, because to me, it's a very sacred thing, you know." 

 

As an exhibit, A Cast of Blues is displayed at the Delta Center for Culture and Learning in Cleveland. It has been shown in the New Mexico State Capitol Rotunda and Albuquerque Museum, among other locations. It's expected to eventually move to the new Grammy museum now under construction in Cleveland. A portion of the lifecasts will tour the country.  

 

The first time Dickerson was in a room, surrounded by all the masks on display, the emotion was overwhelming. 

 

"It was the first time I was there by myself, in a room with all of them, and I just sobbed," she said. "I felt them all. Many of them are deceased now, and there I was, remembering them all. They all seemed to be having these conversations -- it was surreal." 

 

 

 

Tree of hands 

 

Dickerson is currently pursuing an extension of her lifecasts -- a tree of hands. 

 

"I have a vision for a new piece that I'd like to be centrally located in an exhibit with the faces surrounding it on the walls." Her concept is that the roots of the tree will be arms and hands representing roots blues musicians. The trunk will be wrapped with hands, while branches and leaves will represent genres inspired by the blues. Dickerson has aleady lifecast the hands of Johnny Winter and Mark "Muleman" Massey.  

 

The most imminent project, however, is a Kickstarter campaign to publish a striking coffee-table book, "A Cast of Blues: Images and the Stories Behind the Masks." About 20 days remain in the online fundraising drive. The book will include art photography, biographies of each musician and stories and impressions from Dickerson about their time together and friendships with many. 

 

"Without other people's help, this book may never see the light of day," she said. "All the musicians I've cast are so precious to me; I want to do this book so badly." 

 

Abby Davis of Columbus is a niece of the sculptor. "Sharon is so incredibly creative. She is such a treasure for Mississippi," Davis said. 

 

Dickerson believes the lifecasts are a perpetuation of each subject's legacy. 

 

"It was such a gift that they let me do this and left it for all of us to enjoy," she said. "I promised them I'd do my very best to get them in beautiful venues, where people would not forget them." 

 

 

 

ON THE WEB:  

 

  • mcconnelldickersonart.com 

     

  • kck.st/1q0A0QE

     

  • Jan Swoope is the Lifestyles Editor for The Commercial Dispatch.

     

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