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J.J. Jackson and his Stevie Wonder tapestry

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At age 5, I lost my sight. We didn’t discover until 30 years later that it was a hereditary condition called Stickler Syndrome. Blindness is a symptom of it along with cleft palate, arthritis and joint problems. It affects anywhere on the body there are connective tissues.

My parents quickly found out about the Michigan School for the Blind and started having me attend. The school had been in existence at that time for over 100 years, and I actually became the first African-American valedictorian in its history.

In eighth grade, Stevie Wonder, or “Little Stevie Wonder,” as they called him, had his first hit with “Fingertips.” It was the first live recording to make No. 1 in the country for 13 weeks.

But when it became a hit, the schools in Detroit refused to let Stevie be a student and a star. They told him he needed to make a choice, to be in school or be a musician.

The School for the Blind said you can do both here as long as you had a private tutor to travel with while Motown sends you out on the road to do shows.

We became the best of friends in eighth grade. In fact, in 11th and 12th grade, he lived with my family. Even when I went to MSU to college in 1968, Stevie would still come in to see me. We’d pull a sofa from the dorm lobby into my room and he’d stay on the weekend and hang out.

I still see him for his birthday each year and rubbed shoulders with Quincy Jones, John Legend and Chris Tucker, who became my friend as well.

In 1976, I wanted to do something special for Stevie’s birthday. He has all the money in the world. Nothing I could buy him would mean anything, so I was challenged to think, “What can I do that someone else couldn’t give him?”

So I made the tapestry of Stevie, Aisha, his first and oldest child, and her brother, the baby named Kita. I made that tapestry because it is tactile. As a blind person, we can feel the image and get an idea of what takes shape. You can even feel his hair is a special yarn for the African-American curly hairstyle.

It took me three months to finish. I had a person at a local art store take the canvas and draw a picture of Stevie with his two kids. Then I had a friend go through each row and count each hole and record on a tape for me saying things like “14 yellow and two chestnut brown.”

I would later play the tape and latch-hook it. I took this everywhere I went. The greatest challenge was to count the holes correctly and read the yarn boxes by Braille.

(This interview was edited and condensed by Dennis Burck. If you have a recommendation for “Favorite Things,” please email dennis@lansingcitypulse.com.)

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