A loss of vision led to Como-based artist Sharon McConnell-Dickerson’s discovery of a gift for artistic expression.
by Natalie Troutt
photos by Casey Hilder
Then Sharon McConnell-Dickerson woke up in a Chicago hotel room with foggy vision while on a business trip, she had no idea how much her life was about to change. A flight attendant on corporate jets at the time, she was unknowingly about to embark on an entirely different career path.
After her frightening discovery in Chicago, the petite, raven-haired McConnell-Dickerson returned home to New England to see a doctor and regroup with her family. She was diagnosed with Uveitis, a degenerative eye disease that eventually leads to total blindness. Stunned, but hoping to at least delay her loss of sight, the 27-year-old McConnell-Dickerson went through two surgeries and many drug therapies. While it did slow the process, she ultimately grew tired of being what she calls “a professional patient.”
McConnell-Dickerson says that her parents had a particularly hard time dealing with her new condition. “Your parents want to fix everything and they couldn’t fix this,” she says. However, she credits her parents, as well as former first lady Barbara Bush, whom she got to know during her flight attendant years, with “lighting a fire” under her. Whale-watching with Bush and others on a private yacht after her diagnosis, the former first lady asked McConnell-Dickerson what she had in mind for the future after this unexpected turn of events. McConnell-Dickerson said she had no idea what she wanted to do or even what she was interested in. Bush responded that she had endless options despite her condition. She asked her to write to her when she figured out what she wanted to do and offered to write a personal letter of recommendation to any program that she chose.
McConnell-Dickerson ended up moving to Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she visited while working as a flight attendant. She fell deeply in love with the city because of its diverse culture and abundance of artistic expression. Although her mother was an artist, McConnell-Dickerson says art was not a big part of her life growing up. However, after a sculptor visited her parents’ beach home in Maine and introduced her to sculpting, she realized exactly what she wanted to do with her life.
She applied to the art program at an area college in New Mexico and was accepted. After meeting with the director of the program, though, she quickly realized they were simply not prepared for a student with her needs. Instead of looking back on that time with bitterness, she says it turned out to be a positive experience because it upset her enough to motivate her. McConnell-Dickerson is not one to be easily discouraged. Naturally, she experienced frustrations due to her condition but has come out on the other side with an entirely new outlook. “I used to be pretty cynical but I’m embracing the experience now,” she says.
Taking the money that she had for tuition, she sought teachers outside of an academic environment. After months of private tutoring with several artists who not only tutored her in technique, but also the business of art, her parents treated her to a trip to Paris, France. Accompanied by her mother, she toured many of the museums there, such as the famous art museum The Louvre, where she was allowed to study and to touch any of the works that she chose. Many times, she toured the museums on days when they were closed to the public, allowing her the privacy to really study the artwork. She says this level of accommodation was incredibly beneficial. It concerns her that museums in the United States do not provide the same accommodations to art patrons.
Based on her experience with the museums in Paris, McConnell-Dickerson makes her work accessible to all that attend her exhibits. In fact, she has a sign at her shows that reads, “Please touch.” Portraits are installed at a level that children or someone in a wheelchair can easily access. Text is in large print for the visually impaired. She even provides braille books with full descriptions of the displayed pieces.
After her return from Paris, McConnell-Dickerson worked on different art projects before beginning the project she is most known for: her life-masks of legendary blues musicians. This is the project that made her famous with blues fans all over the world and is also the reason that she moved to Como in 2006. A longtime blues lover, the life masks were her way of paying tribute to a music genre and a generation that she admired. “A life-mask is like a 3-D photograph to someone who is blind. It captures the flesh, muscle, bone, hair and the subtle expression of emotion. I wanted to discover the faces behind the music I love, so I went to Mississippi to map out the visages of the real Delta blues men and women,” she says. Over the course of the past 13 years, she has done casts of the faces of 55 legendary blues musicians, including everyone from Othar Turner to R.L. Burnside. Now, with more than half of those musicians deceased, the collection is considered historic. Although she has duplicates of the masks, McConnell-Dickerson donated all of the originals to Delta State University, where anyone can view them in their permanent display in Ewing Hall.
During the course of her work on the blues masks, McConnell-Dickerson made several trips to Como to meet with Othar Turner and others. While walking down the street on one particular visit to Como, she felt a sudden sense of calm, and was overwhelmed with the thought, “I am home.” Soon after, she bought one of the oldest homes in town, and soon after that, she met her husband, David Dickerson. She loves her home and her life in Como, and says that her home is her own little world. Although she does venture out every now and then, much of her time is spent at home in her studio. She says it is important for every artist to keep a clean studio but especially for someone who is visually impaired.
She has some peripheral vision, but is almost completely blind. The fact that she can see at all is baffling to her doctors, as both of her retinas are completely detached. The idea of losing her sight completely frightens her. Despite her limited vision, she says, “beauty is of the mind. I see very little but perceive a lot.”
Although she is best known for her blues masks, McConnell-Dickerson says she is now headed in a totally different direction with her work. With the help of her mentor, fellow artist Helen Argo, she is now painting for the first time. She maintains a minimalist style and says her two completed works are very subdued in hue because it is pleasing to her eyes. After completing only two paintings, she was recently offered a solo show at the Northwest Mississippi Community College campus during October of 2013. McConnell-Dickerson says that she is deeply humbled and encouraged by the offer. While her career as an artist is rewarding, it’s her impact on others that is most important to her. “I want to inspire and encourage others. I want them to see that if I can do it, they can do it. No matter what, find a way to be happy,” she says.
If you cannot make it to her show in October, there are plenty of other venues where you can admire her work. The Harrington Brown Gallery in Memphis, Tennessee; the Tunica Museum in Tunica, Mississippi; the Willie Dixon Blues Heaven Foundation (the site of the famous old Chess Records building) in Chicago, Illinois; and the Main Street Gallery in Como are just a few of the places where you can find her work. She will also be traveling to Cognac, France this summer with her life-masks for a show at the Cognac Blues Festival. A documentary about her work with the masks titled Blind Faith is also in the works. For more on McConnell-Dickerson, visit her website at