On November 29, 2010, Jacksonville native Melody Jackson was diagnosed with acoustic neuroma, a slow growing benign tumor that develops on the main nerve leading from the inner ear to the brain. Branches of this nerve directly influence your body's balance and sense of hearing. As the tumor grows, it creates pressure that often results in hearing loss, ringing in your ear, dizziness, and loss of balance.
Jackson underwent her first surgery to remove the tumor on May 25, 2011. Going into the surgery, Jackson thought that she'd be free to return to her normal life once the tumor was removed. The damage was done, however, and even after surgery, hearing didn't return to her right ear. Jackson continued to suffer from vestibular imbalance as well as nystagmus and oscillopsia, two visual disorders. She also received the additional diagnosis of chiari malformation, structural defects in the base of the skull and cerebellum - the part of the brain that controls balance.
As a result of these maladies, Jackson's day-to-day life was impacted beyond measure. She began to feel like life was imploding. Jackson was no longer able to drive and tasks like standing and walking were impossible without the aid of a rolling walker, which restricted her mobility even further.
2011 is also the year that Jackson began painting. Her doctors suggested that she paint as a form of therapy. Jackson picked up a paintbrush and soon found that painting calmed her eyes and brain.
Eventually, Jackson underwent spinal fusion surgery. It was during her recovery process that a second acoustic neuroma was discovered. This abnormality exhibited non-standard traits. Instead of being slow growing, the benign tumor was rapidly advancing. Jackson was advised by her doctors that radiology treatment was her only option. She underwent six treatments between November 2016 and January 2017.
As part of radiology treatment, Jackson was outfitted with a mesh mask that was molded around her face and head and then secured to a table to prevent movement during treatment. For her submission to Through Our Eyes 2018, Jackson wanted to incorporate the mask into her work. Still living with restricted mobility, she reached out online to Overstreet Ducasse for advise. Not only did Ducasse respond, but he scheduled to visit Jackson at her home.
Ducasse coached Jackson on her piece, and as a result, pushed the artist and her work to an entirely new level. Ducasse also enlisted photographer Clinton Eastman to help in the collaboration. Eastman, a figure well known within Jacksonville’s art scene, captured images of Jackson wearing the mask, which were then incorporated into the work.
Jackson embodies resilience. In the past eight years, she has gone from being able bodied, to disabled, to differently challenged; continuously defining a new normal for her every day life. In conjunction with painting as therapy, a substantial amount of her recovery is because of her choice to openly communicate with her doctors, therapists, and loved ones.
Jackson has two pieces currently on exhibit at The Ritz Theatre and Museum. The mixed media pieces are titled Mask Resistance and Resilient Resurrection. Her work is included in Through Our Eyes and will be on display through June 8, 2018.
10 Questions with Melody Jackson
Do you have any patterns, routines, or habits when starting a new project?
Yes, my routine includes watching two inspirational videos to gain motivation. The first is a TEDxVancouver lecture led by Nardwuar called "Do it Yourself." The second is a TEDx lecture called "Embrace the Shake" by Phil Hansen. After, I whisper three words into the silence: "Lord, Help me." Then I begin.
What have you learned about yourself through your artistic and cultural endeavors?
I've learned that consistent practice is a gift. Culturally, I've learned that art can cast a boundless sphere starting from the soul.
How do you define success in what you do?
Success, for me, is defined by one word: Completion.
After being diagnosed with Acoustic neuroma, what role did art and the creative process play in your healing and how you processed information related to your health?
My healing began with art and the creative process.
I had my first acoustic neuroma removed at Shands Jacksonville on May 25th, 2011. My Neurosurgeon, Dr. M. Petr, ordered a therapy for me called Art at Bedside. Dr. Peter is an artist himself. He is also my unsung hero and I credit him with somehow passing on his gift to me.
Lauren Corbin was my therapist and she offered what she called a "creative distraction." She stepped into my room with a white ridged dixie plate and a primary color palate. My cousin, Caroline, noticed my response to the therapy and she bought buckets of paint, stencils, and canvas. This therapy became my new normal.
Art remains a part of my healing process to this day. It lessens my depression, pity parties, and keeps me focused on life and moving forward.
For your work in Through Our Eyes 2018, you reached out to Overstreet Ducasse to ask for guidance. How did interacting with Street impact your approach to making art and what did the experience mean to you?
It gave me confidence to believe that my idea could work. As a differently challenged person, the experience redefined opportunity for me. At first I was afraid to reach out to Overstreet. But, I kept reminding myself of when he spoke about his art during an event at CoRK. I knew that if I asked, he could guide me in formulating my ideas.
As I said before, I watch quite a few TEDx talks. Nardwuar helped me see that all one has to do is ask. I asked Overstreet to help and he said yes.
In addition to Street, you also collaborated with photographer Clinton Eastman. What do you see when you look at the work that resulted from this collaboration? Additionally, having been in attendance for the opening reception of the exhibit, what did you feel when you saw others interacting with your work?
The collaboration with Clinton is passion personified. He worked various angles and made suggestions and always remained in the moment. He was able to capture my struggles as I began to take off the mask. The only sound was the camera shutter opening and closing. I was focused on enduring the unbearable, once again. This time for my creation. Clinton was able to record every nuance of that journey.
Seeing others interact with my work has broadened my narrative. This is my gift to each person who hugged me, cried with me, or just shared their stories of survival and the horror they went through. It's almost like being in a weightless chamber, all things are new.
This isn't your first year exhibiting in Through Our Eyes. What do you think is unique about this year's exhibition when compared to previous years?
The opportunities present for participating artists to connect with our sister city, Nelson Mandela Bay, makes this year unique. That opportunitiy is beyond compare.
What piece in Through Our Eyes did you personally find most captivating, and why?
Other than my own work? Well, there was a piece called "Anne Shirley." Her eyes are so full of hope being different, outside the norm, but normal. It made me think of my own life. I am so different than I was, yet I feel like everyone else.
What is the greatest challenge(s) you face as an artist working in Northeast Florida?
Being included. My disabilities limit me from going to some of the events that are held. They are not always set up for differently abled people without proper transportation. It is difficult to constantly ask for assistance.
What would you like to see as an effort to support and grow Jacksonville's arts and cultural sector?
I would like for more City leaders to gather data on differently abled artist and figure out a way to provide space in each district for everyone to have the opportunity to create and show their work. It could be by sponsorship, scholarship, or ability to pay.
We'd like to thank Melody Jackson for her participation in this interview. We'd also like to thank you for reading.
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