The rotund figure’s hands rest on his knees, with some of his fingers spaced slightly apart and one of his pinkies edging onto his leg’s side. His eyes and mouth stay closed, and his face, giving the air of a personified seriousness, keeps position. Naked, relaxed, and plaster-cast white, he sits in the corner of the house’s window-filled studio. “This is everybody’s favorite figure,” says Sharon McConnell-Dickerson, a blind artist who has done close to a hundred life-size, face, and hand castings of both bronze and plaster. “He’s my Buddha.”
It’s a bright and pleasant Saturday afternoon in Como, Mississippi, and McConnell-Dickerson is showing off her work in her spacious, well-decorated home. She’s been speaking on the aforementioned life-size cast she’s made of musician and friend Matthew Andre, and now she’s turned to another one of her works. “That’s me,” she says of a plaster-cast figure striking a grass-lounging pose on the other side of the room. “You might be able to see it in the face, but the hair is not my hair. I gave myself longer hair.”
After learning she would go blind in the late 1990s, McConnell-Dickerson began to study art and found great success in the life-casting medium. Her work has been displayed in areas ranging from Tennessee to Alabama to France, and her exhibit A Cast of Blues, which contains primarily face casts of Blues musicians both deceased and living, is on display at the Desoto Arts Council in Hernando until Oct. 7. McConnell-Dickerson has been creating and compiling the life-cast masks of the Blues musicians since 2001, and it’s a work for which she shows both interest and passion.
“They’re [the blues musicians] an important group that’s leaving us,” she says. “Of the 40 in the exhibit, only 14 are still living. So I just feel it’s important that these people be remembered and honored for what they created. American music history, and world history, because of how the blues has impacted world music.” Observing the masks in her Hernando exhibition, one can see how the casts preserve the mythos of the blues musicians. The details are vivid, and the shapes intricate. You can run your hand across the casts and feel the differences in the faces. “She brings the blues to life,” said Willie King, a blues musician whom McConnell-Dickerson cast before his death.
McConnell-Dickerson’s work is unusual in the fact that it is a wide-range attempt to preserve Blues musicians in our memory, but not uncommon in its manner of using bronze or plaster cast as a monument to one’s work or life. For though it is not always known of, the art of life casting predates McConnell-Dickerson, King, and blues music itself.
Going back to civilizations of antiquity, casting has been practiced for thousands of years. Gauze strips were dipped in plaster to cast the remains of the pharaohs in Ancient Egypt, and in Rome, death masks were made to celebrate those in the upper crest of Latin society upon their passing. Incidentally, castings in Rome were also supposedly used as a method of murder. After boxes had been constructed, a slave would be told that a casting would be made of him, and that he should get in the box. The slave would then be given a breathing tube to be inserted in the mouth, and the box would be filled with plaster. This “breathing tube,” however, would serve as the victim’s ultimate demise, as molten metal would soon be poured into it, killing the in boxed person.
Fast forward 800 years, and casting had become a notable means of preservation in Europe. Death masks grew increasingly popular as a way for the dead to live on in the minds and hearts of civilians, and masks of nobility, royalty, and other significant and historical figures were continuously made. Today you can see death masks of noteworthy persons such as Mozart, Beethoven and Napoleon, and these detailed faces will stoke the furnace of your imagination, giving you a more lucid idea of what they must have looked like.
As time continued to pass and styles continued to grow and change, casts became not only a means of preservation but also an art form. Now, in 2017, life masks made of the living are commonplace, as are life cast of hands, feet, pregnant stomachs and entire bodies.
For McConnell-Dickerson this is good news, as she considers the display of a life-mask to have more complexities and energy than that of a death mask. “You can really see the difference between what comes through in a life-mask, as opposed to a death mask,” she says. “Take Othar Turner and Mozart. You can see there’s nothing in the death mask that animates. But the spirit is captured, I believe, in the life mask.”
In her home, McConnell-Dickerson has moved to what she refers to as the “messy studio,” where she will soon do a plaster casting of the hands of Blues slide guitarist Kenny Brown. It’s an intricate process, and one that will require careful pouring, rolling and refining of plaster. But it’s a process those in Mississippi and surrounding areas will have the chance to learn, as she’ll be running a workshop at the Desoto Arts Council in Hernando, where her exhibition is currently on display. “I’m going to be leading them through and teaching them,” she says. “It’s an introduction to life-casting. Everyone is going to take part in the process. Everyone is going to be model, artist and assistant.”
McConnell-Dickerson also hopes the materials produced in the workshop will give attendees heirlooms to take home, items that will conserve them in family memories long after their deaths. It’s similar to the way she hopes to preserve the legacies of the blues artists she has cast, a goal she has no doubt achieved.
Now back in her well-lit studio, where plaster cast figures sit in the corner and lounge on the ground, McConnell-Dickerson holds up a photo of a bronze face cast she did of Othar Turner. “Both of our hearts understood each other,” she says of her relationship with Turner. “I was just really feeling him, and I know he was feeling me. It’s a very personal, very intimate kind of process, to be that close to someone, right up in their face. I adore them, and I’m adorning them.” After a look at the photo, she slides it down on the table and picks up another one. Othar Turner passed away soon after she did his face mask, and more than ten years have passed since his death.
But if you look at the picture closely, you can see Turner’s character live on in the cast: In its mold, in its shape, and in its spirit that will forever shine forth.
A Cast of Blues
Exploring the surprising historical relevance of casting
through the newest hands-on DeSoto Arts Council exhibit, courtesy of
blind artist Sharon McConnell-Dickerson
Interview by John Klyce | Photos courtesy Sharon McConnell-Dickerson