Story Slim Smith | Photographs Luisa Porter
“If she could communicate, I do believe she would have become a great architect,’’ says Melissa Henry’s grandmother, China Prewitt, as she leads a visitor through Henry’s make-shift studio in Eupora. The artist trails behind, beaming with pride as the visitor examines her scale-model replicas of buildings, both famous and obscure, all made from cereal boxes, of all things.
Henry, 43, has been deaf since birth and has lived with her grandmother since age 5.
“She can’t hear and she doesn’t talk,” Prewitt says. “Some people think she might have some autism, but I don’t know about that. She’s very intelligent. She’s pretty easy to live with. She empties the dish-washer, irons, keeps her room clean. We don’t have any problems.”
But what Henry likes most of all, what she has always liked most of all, is art, a passion Prewitt noticed when Henry was about 6 years old.
“She would draw, but it wouldn’t be the kind of things you would expect a child would be interested in and want to draw,” says Prewitt.
In retrospect, Henry’s early drawings appear to have a clue of what was to come. From the start, she seemed captivated by patterns, especially intricate patterns, and shapes. Prewitt shows the visitor one of those early drawings, a scene devoted entirely to a chain-link fence.
Locked away somewhere within the deep recesses of her mind, Henry’s fascination with the precision of geometry began to express itself through her scale models, which she started making out of cereal boxes and scotch tape, using only scissors and crayons, about 20 years ago.
“How many has she made? Oh, my, honey. Thousands,” Prewitt says, laughing.
That’s a lot of cereal boxes.
“People from church, when they found out about Melissa, began collecting them for her,” Prewitt says. “Every Sunday, they have a trunk full of cereal boxes for her.”
The cereal boxes have just the weight and density Henry likes best. She sits on the floor with her scissors and cuts the boxes into small strips about 3 inches long, bending them to shape and applying scotch tape to piece the models together. The work is tedious and detailed, yet Henry seems to show no signs of frustration or boredom. She is relentless.
The models range from simple structures that can fit into the palm of your hand to elaborate replicas, some as much as 6-feet tall.
Some are simple — log cabins, barns. Some are complex and complete in the most minute detail, including famous landmarks such as Seattle’s Space Needle, the Guggenheim Museum, the Taj Mahal, the Eiffel Tower, the Great Sphinx, the Arc de Triomphe, St. Basil’s Cathedral in Moscow and the Pentagon.
Even more astounding is that Henry uses no drawings or plans and makes no written calculations. The engineering exists only in her mind. Prewitt says Henry seems to have a photographic memory.
“She’ll see a picture in a magazine or on TV, or some building when we are driving somewhere, and somehow she’ll just remember it and everything about it,” she says. “Really, I can’t explain it.”
Prewitt has sold only a few of Henry’s pieces.
“The Arc de Triomphe, I sold that,” she says. “The others, I don’t remember. To be honest, I have to kind of sneak around to sell them for her. She doesn’t like letting them go.”
Her work has begun to capture the attention of art enthusiasts in the region. She had a showing at Eupora’s BLY Fine Arts Center, but there have also been inquiries from galleries in bigger cities, including New Orleans.
Of all Henry’s models, Prewitt says the Tower of Pisa is her favorite.
It leans at the same 5.5-degree angle as the real thing.