By Gwen Sisson
It all began with grandfather clocks.
When Melissa Henry was attending the Mississippi School for the Deaf, she became fascinated with grandfather clocks and began building them from pieces of thin cardboard and tape. Once she has the basic form together, she cuts additional cardboard to paint and add to the outside of the structure until it is just what she sees in her mind.
Every creation begins as something she has seen in person or read about in books. She then draws a small picture of the structure she wants to work on and then spend weeks gathering materials and creating her paper sculpture.
Her grandmother, China Ray Prewitt of Eupora, said Melissa can spend six-to-eight hours a day working on her art.
“It is just a gift the good Lord has given her,” Prewitt said. “She does so much from memory. She never uses a ruler, but cuts and draws everything to scale. She loves architecture and even driving past an interesting building or bridge intrigues her.”
Melissa was born deaf, and despite many attempts at speech therapy, she can only speak a few words. She came to live with her grandmother when she was five years old and began her education at the Mississippi School for the Deaf at the age of six. She was at the school until she was twelve years old. It was at the school that she began drawing buildings and building grandfather clocks from cardboard.
Afterwards, she attended the Magnolia Speech School where she received one-on-one tutoring in a classroom environment. When the school lost funding, Melissa’s family began seeking other educational opportunities. Because Melissa was accustomed to one-on-one education, private tutors were brought in. Tutors said Melissa had above average intelligence and a photographic memory.
Her grandmother said her photographic memory plays a key role in helping Melissa express herself through her artwork. “She is absolutely brilliant to be able to do this,” said Gary Haygood of Jackson, a big fan of Melissa’s artwork. “No measuring—just literally cut and paste from memory!”
“Melissa has a great attention to detail and a great ability to see things as a three-dimensional shape,” said her uncle Nathan Prewitt who would doodle on church bulletins with Melissa as she was growing up, to entertain her during church services. “Maybe most artists have that ability, but most ordinary people do not.”
Her grandmother said when Melissa is working on a project, she may be watching television, but she will also be cutting shapes for her art.
“She will take a cardboard box and cut it into numerous pieces,” Prewitt said. “We do not ever mess with them. She can have several thousand pieces divided so she knows what she wants to do with them. Those pieces are very important to her.” Her artwork can be a project that can take up a whole corner of a room or can fit in the palm of your hand.
Melissa loves books, particularly picture books with photos of famous buildings and structures. She has been blessed with many aunts and uncles who love to take her on trips with them to see some of her creations in person.
Prewitt said not long after creating a model of the Golden Gate Bridge, one of her aunts took her to San Francisco to see it. She didn’t just get out and look—she walked the entire bridge and back. Her grandmother said she was very excited!
She built a model of the Biltmore Castle, but after a visit to the landmark in North Carolina, Melissa took her creation apart and remade it. The roof of the “newly renovated” Biltmore had green paint around every corner. Prewitt could not understand why she painted so much green on the roof, until one of her sons said it is what the tarnished copper roof must have looked like to Melissa.
Melissa is now 46 and has many creations. Not all of them were strong enough to weather the move to Eupora 19 years ago, so what she has created since can be found on display in her room or in the small building called “Melissa’s Museum” just outside their home.
Prewitt said it was becoming more and more difficult to house her work, and the building allows Melissa an opportunity to enjoy her creations with a little more walking room. Some of her pieces include the Sphinx, the Space Needle from Seattle, the Eiffel Tower, a Chinese pagoda and Cinderella’s Castle from Disney World.
She also creates jewelry from cardboard. Melissa loves rings and will create them from tiny pieces of cardboard. “She really has amazed us,” her grandmother said.
Melissa is always creating new artwork, and while it is not actively marketed, her grandmother does sell a few pieces occasionally, with all proceeds going to a trust fund for Melissa.
When she is not working on an art project, Melissa can be found absorbed in a book, working a jigsaw puzzle with 1000-2000 pieces or doing a little embroidery work. She helps her grandmother around the house and she is a member of Bellefontaine United Methodist Church. And while she can also be found watching sports on television on occasion, she would rather be working on a new model.
For more information about Melissa’s Museum, contact China Ray Prewitt at 662.258.2734.
Gwen Sisson is a freelance writer from Bellefontaine, who also works as a ministry assistant at First Baptist Church of Eupora. Read her blog at www.gwensisson.com.