Healing Through Art

The Malissa Perry Project

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Malissa Perry likes to listen to Christmas music throughout the year. The 46-year-old artist is also known for waking up at 6am to start her day—typically by dancing, followed by making her bed and practicing her own version of yoga.

“She is absolutely herself, completely authentic and free,” says Christen Mattix, who’s been one of Malissa’s caregivers since the summer of 2013, when a chance meeting with Malissa’s mother at the Community Food Co-op led to a meaningful career change.

Christen says that although she’s encountered plenty of people who initially have stereotypes about Malissa—who has Down’s Syndrome, and communicates primarily through body and sign language—many change their minds once they’ve gotten to know the force of nature.

“Some well-meaning folks react with pity when I tell them about Malissa—as if her condition is sad, as though her life is a waste,” Christian says. “Actually, she is one of the most contented and energetic women I know.”

At one of five “Healing Through Art” exhibits on display until Jan. 31 throughout PeaceHealth St. Joseph Medical Center, visitors to the Cardiovascular Rehabilitation Lobby can discover for themselves another aspect of Malissa’s personality. “The Malissa Perry Project” combines Christen’s portraits of her friend alongside Malissa’s abstract paintings—eye-catching works that combine layers of marker, glitter and paint with found objects sourced from her daily life (shoelaces, beads, balloons, etc.)

“I think the assumption is that because Malissa is dependent on her staff (including me) for 24-hour care, that she is somehow ‘less than,’” Christen says. “By doing a two-person show with her, I want to affirm that she is my equal. When one views my portraits of Malissa alongside her own paintings, one gets a sense of her voice, her authority and subjectivity as an artist, and more importantly, as a human person.”

Christen says Malissa had already been making drawings with felt tip pens on old computer paper when another staff member, Nancy Daugherty, realized she had talent and gifted her with a blank canvas and paint. When she started working with superior materials, Christen says a “whole new world of possibilities” opened up for her in terms of the subtlety of her colors and layering.

When she’s completed a piece, Malissa simply refuses to add more paint to the work, even if others aren’t sure that she’s finished with it.

“When Malissa says it’s done, it’s done,” Christen says.

For Christen’s own work in the exhibit—portraits of Malissa smiling, petting a golden retriever, hugging friends, lacing cards and celebrating her birthday—she was inspired by the power of Malissa’s gestures.

“As a nonverbal woman, Malissa expresses herself completely through her body—her sparkly eyes with a hint of mischief, her hands caressing her dog, the soft roundness of her shoulders,” Christen says. “I also adore her bright colors and clashing patterns. She opens up fun, refreshing possibilities that are avant garde in their bold defiance of fashion norms.”

Those viewing Christen’s works that are part of “The Malissa Perry Project” will quickly note the affection and love she has for her co-exhibitor and charge, but Christen says she’d be remiss if she didn’t point out that there are still moments that she gets discouraged.

She recently asked Malissa’s mom, Fran Perry, to speak about the challenges of being in a close relationship with her daughter. Fran responded, pointing out that “Malissa inhabits whatever she feels completely, whether joy or sorrow. Given that she is nonverbal and uses limited sign language, there can be real anguish for her that is shared by her staff when she is in physical or emotional pain—and can’t communicate about it.  [Working with Malissa] is not either/or, it’s both joy and sorrow—but the good outweighs the bad.”

Christen agrees. It’s one of the reasons she included the piece “White Painting” in the show. It’s a small portrait of Malissa curled in on herself, crying. She painted it to “honor her moments of sorrow alongside the happiness.

“Quite frankly, I think that’s the human condition. We are all laughing through our tears.”

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