I had just returned to Bellingham after spending six months at a Cistercian monastery discerning God’s direction for my life. I realized that God wanted me back in the world, working as an artist.
Bewildered but trying to stay open to God’s leading, I was at a grocery store when a woman — an acquaintance from a Catholic prayer meeting — tapped me on the shoulder and asked if I needed a job. This had never happened to me before. In a matter of days, I had an interview lined up to work with a woman with Down syndrome and autism named Malissa Perry.
Little did I know this job would change my life. I started working two overnight shifts a week, which allowed me to make art on the other days. But I struggled to find meaning in my work as a caregiver and realized that I needed to make art out of the experience. With the approval of my supervisors, I began making bold portraits of Malissa on large pieces of plywood. This work changed how I saw Malissa — I became much more aware of the presence of Jesus in her, how much God loves her and works through her.
But a wonderful surprise awaited us all. Last spring, as an experiment, we gave Malissa a canvas, and she hasn’t stopped painting since. Malissa is nonverbal, but her paintings give expression to a rich, enigmatic inner life. She creates dense, atmospheric layers of marker, glitter and paint that suggest nebulae, tidal pools or glittering geodes. The surfaces of her paintings incorporate found objects like shoelaces, beads and balloons culled from her daily life.
Malissa is not powerful in the eyes of the world, but she has tremendous power in the kingdom of God. When Jesus said blessed are the poor and the meek, I’m sure he was thinking of people like Malissa. She is a devout Catholic who receives Communion every week through a faithful eucharistic minister who visits her home. She loves to turn on her battery-powered candle and pray with her caregivers — whether or not they are Catholic. (She’s a bit of an evangelist!) Her childlike dependency has drawn together a beautiful community of women who act as her caregivers and friends. Malissa’s gifts to others are simple but profound — a radiant smile, a joyful dance, a glittery painting.
She is a breath of fresh air in a world full of people trying to conform. She can’t impress others with her knowledge, looks, conversation or wealth, and so she gives us the gift of a Christ-like acceptance based not on external things but on an open heart. L’Arche founder Jean Vanier once said, “People with intellectual disabilities are so spontaneous and true! They attract and awaken the heart. Their thirst for friendship, love and communion leaves no one indifferent. Either you harden your heart to their cry and reject them, or you open your heart and enter into a relationship built on trust, simple, tender gestures and few words.”
"Untitled" by Malissa Perry
View the paintings
The Malissa Perry Project, an exhibit featuring Perry’s abstractions and Christen Mattix’s portraits of Perry, is on display through Jan. 31 at St. Joseph Medical Center in Bellingham. You can see the paintings online at facebook.com/themalissaperryproject.
Christen Mattix is a member of Sacred Heart Parish in Bellingham.
Let your Catholic voice be heard
Northwest Catholic - January/February 2016