Sketches of Perception, Melisa Cadell, 2014
Today’s interview features inspiring individual Melisa Cadel. Melisa has an MFA from East Tennessee State University, with an emphasis on Sculpture and Studio Art, as well as a BFA in Drawing and Painting from University of North Texas. She serves as an adjunct professor at Appalachian State University and leads workshops at craft centers across the United States. She did not realize she was dyslexic until her son Ben was diagnosed in 4th grade. Similar to artist Courtney Dodd’s insights about art, perception, and making, Melisa shared a story with us that is moving, compassionate, and vulnerable. Please join us in celebrating her accomplishments and aspirations for the future!
Camp Spring Creek: When did you first suspect that you had dyslexia and how did that realization affect you?
Melisa Cadell: I always tested poorly when it came to standardized tests. I could not spell and reading comprehension was non-existent. I always compensated by listening to what people said about things. I hung out with the intelligent people and soaked up their discussions. I made good marks but was always doing more work than the others to make up for my difficulties. When I applied to colleges there was no problem until they received my horrible SATs and ACTs. I had to be interviewed at the college institution that offered me a basketball scholarship because the scores were so low; I think they just wanted to see if I had an IQ at all. I always thought it was some type of test anxiety or something. I could do just about anything if I had enough time and studied harder than the others. I never dreamed that I was dyslexic.In college, I took classes that were more hands on, after I clomped through remedial English twice, and developed really great study skills. I enjoyed my Literature classes because the instructor I had (for both sections) walked us through each passage. I took copious notes and made great scores on the long essay tests. If someone explained the texts to me I could read multiple meanings into passages. It was like a playground. I graduated with honors in my BFA and a K-12 teaching certification in Art Ed. It took me 6 years. Art was the first thing I did not struggle with. It was a field where there wasn’t a right or wrong as long as you found a non-cliché way to do it. It was about problem solving so the more problems you had the more possibilities existed.
I did not put a label on my inability to be a functional reader until after I completed my MFA with a 4.0. Again I struggled more than my peers but I accomplished what I wanted to. Ben, my oldest child, was diagnosed in the middle of his 4th grade year. Now, I know we are both dyslexic. Why didn’t someone figure this out before Ben’s fourth grade year? Was it because of me? He had all the same struggles. He gets words confused. He has to read things very slowly, more than once. He has difficulty copying things down from the board. Spelling is problematic. He forgets words in the middle of a sentence. He is confused about social interaction. He is terribly forgetful and his organization is very poor. He thinks backwards, like me.
The knowledge of my own disability is wrapped up with the diagnosis of my son and his difficulties. It is not easy for me; it will not be easy for him. I am pleased Ben received his diagnosis and is getting help from an Orton Gillingham tutor. I worry though; at least I was not pegged with low scores and a stigma until I was older. I was not kept from the things I loved because of the struggles. I was always placed in class with my peers and allowed to study any subject I wanted. I just want Ben to hold onto his desire to learn about this amazing world. I am pleased with the ability to see things this way, but it puts me on the outside. Sometimes, that is a lonely place to be. It is because of this solitude that I found myself through art. It communicates all the things I have never been able to voice in any other way. It is only my art that makes me feel like I might have a small understanding of what it means to be a part of this amazing world.
CSC: You’re an artist, working primarily in sculptural ceramics. Many studies have shown that people with dyslexia have strong spatial thinking skills and can also “think outside the box.” In what ways do you see that dyslexic advantage manifest in your work as an artist?
MC: I think that because it takes me so long to process things, I spend more time thinking. I work at it. I try to see a human side of events. I pay attention to struggles. In a way, I think my artwork is about my effort to comprehend how others see things. As an artist, I use my perception to turn something it on its ear. I do not see struggles in black and white, rather; I see in grey, in a light that is not easily understood.I think much of society is spoiled by the perceived apparent. It seems that people want a right way and a wrong way…but this leaves out the complexity. Complexity is rich and colorful, it is messy, it is beautiful and it is haunting. My work honors something in us all; it is about who we are as humans, that which is good and that which is not. I have not figured it out and do not expect to…and because I learn differently, I have learned to embrace the struggle, as well as, the fact that it does not make sense.
CSC: How has realizing your own dyslexia shaped your relationship with your son, who also has dyslexia?
MC: We are still working through it. It is difficult. I feel very upset about how he has to struggle through things while others do not. In the end, I know it will be a benefit. If he can learn to embrace it for what it can show him, difficult as it may be, he will become a success in whatever it is he wants to do. It is sometimes heartbreaking and I just have to have faith in him that he will find his way. Because of dyslexia, I think he will become a more compassionate person.
I push my son to do his personal best because I know how bright and compassionate he is. I am sympathetic and it makes me a passionate advocate, but that can complicate matters if I don’t step back and problem solve first. Teachers that do not understand the hours it takes to do what others do in a matter of minutes frustrate me, but they do not know what we (dyslexics) know and experience. I have begun to piece together ideas for parents and for teachers. My goal is to make a roadmap that benefits the student. I have built a real relationship with Ben’s teachers this year and believe we are all making progress to make the path easier for those to come.
CSC: Did you have any teachers or relatives throughout your upbringing who you felt most keenly understood your strengths and challenges? Tell us about that individual, and how they made an impression on you.
MC: My parents were always there to let me know that if I wanted it I had the power to achieve it…I know they had to work hard, and it was an encouragement to me. I believe that my mother is dyslexic; it seems she has been crippled by her inability to read and write well. She is a brilliant thinker. Yet her self-confidence was terribly damaged in her youth and she has spent her entire adult life building, it tearing it down, and building it again. I think she often lives through the accomplishments of the ones she has supported. She has felt inferior to those who finished college and made careers for themselves. She is so creatively intelligent and I just wish I could sit within her mind and look at the wonder of it all. I have a feeling that Ben’s diagnosis is helping her see there was a reason she had it so difficult. Knowing why something is the way it is, sometimes, is the first part of healing and the first step to believing.