(CLEVELAND, MISSISSIPPI) — Through her intimate proximity with the kings and queens of blues music, Sharon McConnell-Dickerson has created an in-depth archive of the genre’s history that contains no words — but might contain a strand of DNA or two. For 14 years, she has been creating lifecasts of the blues masters and people closely involved in the genre, including Little Milton, Ruth Brown, R.L. Burnside, and Willie Seabury (proprietor of Po’ Monkey’s Lounge in Merigold, Mississippi).
The original masks are on display at the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi and is open to travelers during Bridging The Blues, until 2015 when they, including the original casting of the late Johnny Winter’s hands, will be transferred to the Grammy Museum currently under construction in Cleveland.
Through her work, Sharon, who lost her sight due to a degenerative eye disease, has developed close relationships with several of her subjects. “It’s a really intimate thing,” she explains, “because I am literally up in their face and touching it. Trust is a big deal, because I can’t see – although I work with an assistant watching me. If the musician is older, the assistant will help me to get people in and out quickly.”
Some of the artists find the process so relaxing that they doze off. “It’s sensory deprivation – I am covering up their eyes, mouth, and ears – and they breathe naturally. I’ve been told by many people that it’s very pleasant,” Sharon describes. “Pinetop [Perkins] fell asleep inside the mask. It’s peaceful for people to shut things off, I think. They can hear their heart beating and their breath.”
When Sharon removed Pinetop’s mask and cleaned his face with a warm washcloth, he seemed to go back in time. “He started to make little moans ‘mmmm’ like he was a child and I was his mother cleaning his face; it was a very sweet exchange. I could tell he liked being touched.”
When Sharon worked with Koko Taylor, a little part of Koko came off with the cast. “Her mascara, lip stick, and some eyelashes were in the mask. There are traces of the human left behind.” She has also captured some of the male subjects’ moustache and beard whiskers.
Sharon started her work in the blues in 2000 when she still lived in Santa Fe, New Mexico and had been working with sculpture as her medium. “I did a series of full-body lifecasts of ordinary people. A friend suggested that I do a series of blues musicians, because so many of them were passing on. There were already photographs [of the musicians], but I was doing these lifecasts. Six months after that, I woke up one morning – he’d planted the seed. Sometimes that happens, you’re not receptive in the moment, then later I believe this is something God wanted me to do.”
Once Sharon had the drive to get started, it took a while for her to gather the materials and line up artists interested in participating. She did not yet have a computer program which enabled her as a blind person to send emails, so she did things “old school”, though lots of phone calls. She traveled to Seattle to cast Pinetop, to Cleveland, Ohio, to cast Robert Lockwood, Jr., and to Como, Mississippi for Otha Turner. Sharon moved to Como in 2006. She acknowledges that her work is a labor of love: “It’s not a money-making project. I’m heavily invested in it over 15 years of traveling around, plane tickets, hotel rooms, and the travel honorariums I was able to offer at first to musicians.”
When asked how she selects which people she wants to cast, she says, “Many times it’s word of mouth. This is a grassroots project.” One artist she had to convince to participate was Bobby “Blue” Bland. “That was one I was driven to get in touch with. It was very difficult to do, but I got his home number and called out of the blue. It took a few calls before he said yes.” Then once they met up in Jackson, Mississippi, Sharon became good friends with Bobby and his wife. “We had several years of friendship after that until his death.”
Johnny Winter was another blues icon with whom Sharon grew especially close. Instead of making a mask of his face, she cast his hands. “He had very unusual hands. What was really odd about that [casting] session was that one came out really rough, and the right hand came out nearly perfect. I called Johnny and told him I thought it was a mirror of his life – the right clean and sober and the left rough and tumbled.” Sharon will send the hand casts to a foundry in Santa Fe to be cast in bronze with one copy going to Johnny’s widow and another to the Highway 61 museum in Leland, Mississippi.
Sharon’s last conversation with Johnny occurred in France during his appearance at the Cahors Blues Festival in July. “We had an understanding that only blind people can have in conversations. He’d had had cataract surgery in February and could see colors as they really were for the first time. He could read larger print and get himself out on the stage. He said the world was beautiful, and he couldn’t believe the colors.”
The original masks can be seen at the Delta Center for Culture and Learning at Delta State University in Cleveland, Mississippi. A collection of selected masks are included in a National Endowment of the Humanities on the road exhibition, A Cast of Blues, currently on display at the Mid-America Arts Alliance in Kansas City, Missouri, through October 24th. The exhibit also includes 15 photographs of blues artists taken by Ken Murphy. Sharon encourages visitors to touch the resin-cast masks as part of the experience.
For her next project, Sharon envisions a tree of hands. She’ll start at the roots of the blues, the middle section will include fans as well as people who promote and support blues music, and the branches will be of the younger generation of blues artists perhaps with some other related genres branching off something like fruit. She would like that tree to be in the center of a room underneath a beautiful skylight surrounded by the masks on the walls.
Sharon describes her work with the lifecasts as a project about preservation to make certain that these artists’ faces are always with us. “I don’t consider these art objects,” she says. “They are archival. It’s very powerful to be in their presence all together; they have this stillness and vibe about them. It’s very special.”