Serving as Sway Downtown’s new curator might seem a lot for a fresh face like Jessica Maples, but it’s far from the most responsibility she’s ever had. Not when she’s also looking after her quadriplegic father and elderly grandparents in the course of daily life.
“My grandparents used to take care of my dad but my grandfather had abdominal issues — he’s not a candidate for surgery anymore — and my grandmother has congestive heart failure and neuropathy from diabetes. Now it’s up to me,” Maples said.
A diving mishap on Thanksgiving Day 1999 resulted in her father’s paralysis. He fractured his C-4 vertebrae — “he heard it when it happened” — at a rural lake north of Mobile. His registered nurse training proved integral as he talked a buddy through the catastrophe before an airlift arrived.
A subsequent divorce left the care of Maples’ father to his parents. Their strong religious conviction was a dominant presence.
“It’s like a civil war of religion now. My grandparents blare Jimmy Swaggart and my dad’s on Google Chat talking to other atheists while I’m in the middle trying to avoid all of it,” Maples said.
The 23-year-old cited Pentecostal beliefs as an earlier strong influence. She was in nursing with the impression it was “what God wanted her to do” in combination with mission work. As her father’s care fell to her, the time and money spent on nursing felt squandered.
“I think that broke the fabric of the way I trusted religion, the way nothing came together,” Maples said. Her doubts gave her father freedom to express his disbelief.
Her medical training was beneficial when her father’s personal care became her responsibility. She administers pharmaceuticals such as antibiotics and seizure medication and helps with therapeutic machines that keep his compromised lungs clear.
A cousin came in to help with more rigorous demands, lifting and the like. Occasionally there’s risk, too.
“My cousin has bad colds and was getting my dad in and out of bed, so of course my dad catches cold the day after I caught it,” Maples said. “My dad has a lot of trouble coughing so we have to help him. He’s had pneumonia a lot.”
Since she felt nursing was out, Maples redirected her scholastic energies. Art came into focus.
“By changing from nursing to graphic design, I kind of regained my brain,” she said.
Her bold personality was an asset. She described her mother as a “firecracker” and said her father’s mind “is hyperactive,” and it’s obvious Maples inherited a little of it all.
She made connections with Bishop State art instructors who served as mentors and remain her friends. Lydia Host brought her into a figure-drawing group and Maples’ innate curiosity took over.
Her need for work and flexibility — “any of the people I live with could go in the hospital any time” — pushed her into figure modeling. That took her to Spring Hill College, where she met art instructor Lauren Woods in 2016.
“I could tell she was interested in art the way she would help make things look good but not overly dramatic. She has a good sense of movement and was always dependable,” Woods said.
Maples’ initiative led her to form collectives for artists and models both. She coordinated and facilitated figure models for educational studios.
These days, she tries to paint piecemeal in a studio separate from her house, but it can be challenging. Maples also kept at her education, finally accruing the hours needed for an associate’s degree.
“I finished in December but did the cap-and-gown thing in May,” Maples said.
Sway curator Woods introduced Maples to gallery owner Noel Hanley, bringing in the protégé for a yoga class initially. As Woods readied to take an out-of-town job, she tapped Maples as her successor.
“I’ve been modeling a lot but I’m kind of cutting off now because I’m trying to curate, to be an artist,” Maples said
The burgeoning curator has eased into the role, aiding with kids’ camps. She is compiling a roster of artists for October’s initial solo curatorial venture. It is Sway’s first anniversary so they’re aiming for a big splash with music and dancers during Artwalk. Maples embraces the pressure.
“I try to question myself constantly. You can’t be too brazen and sure of yourself,” Maples said.
Woods thinks Maples is a good fit. She cites the younger charge’s better grasp of social media and marketing as a step up. It’s apparent Maples’ endurance has left an impression.
“She’s one of the most positive people I know,” Woods said.