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Kelly O'Connor's Old Faithful and Female Mental Health

I paid a visit to the San Antonio Museum of Art on a warm Sunday afternoon as a necessary break from what my mother described as "reclusive" behaviour. I had become a hermit crab, often retreating to the tiny shell of my childhood bedroom. Here in my den of solitude I nap, cry, binge-watch Netflix and otherwise distract myself from the fact that I'm a 27-year-old woman with a Master's degree living at home with her parents during yet another post-grad transitional phase. To pull me out of my misery, my mom suggested we visit the museum, making a special note that it’s free admission from 10 to noon on Sundays.It was on this uplifting journey that I came across Kelly O’Connor’s Old Faithful.

Old Faithful is one of an eleven-collage series entitled Post-Utopia (2011) that combines pop culture with found paper and images. Much of O’Connor’s work utilizes iconic, nostalgic imagery — often dating from the 50s and 60s — but is more largely reflective of western ideals. Here we see Judy Garland, dressed in her iconic Dorothy costume from The Wizard of Oz. Dorothy represents the idealized female: demure, altruistic, the sweet farm girl from Kansas. She is juxtaposed by Old Faithful, the equally iconic cone geyser located in Yellowstone National Park.

What grabbed my attention were the bright hexagons, like angular neon bubbles rising from the base of her canvas. They are glittery, saccharine, candy-colored surfaces that outshine the dull, weathered tones of Dorothy and Old Faithful. This duality, according to O’Connor, acts as a metaphor for the dualities of society and "public facades that we readily embrace." These hexagons are attractive, sparkly, and happy — qualities we often expect of the feminine woman.

Here, Dorothy is so small, dwarfed by her surroundings, literally paling in comparison to the saturated colors around her. She has her hands to her mouth, calling for something or someone. Judy Garland was notoriously tormented during the production of The Wizard of Oz. At a young age, she was introduced to a steady stream of pills — to lose weight, to appear more awake, to sleep — leading to a troubling battle with dysmorphia and addiction. She is crying for help.

In her artist’s statement, O’Connor writes: "Throughout history we continue to struggle with aspirations and contradictions represented in popular culture. Many of the female characters have a look of artificial bliss or antidepressant-driven happiness." Old Faithful points to a more complicated facade, where femininity must veil mental illness.

According to compiled international data in The Stressed Sex, total rates of psychological disorder are 20-40% higher in women than men. While biological factors may contribute to mental illness — such as hormones — the authors found that social stressors make women more vulnerable to mental illness. Women are disproportionately affected by socioeconomic disadvantages, income inequality, low or subordinate social status, unremitting care for others, and sexual violence. Women experience depression at roughly twice the rate of men, yet are less likely to seek professional help.

In a 1996 Mental Health America survey, more than half of women interviewed cited they were in denial of their depression, while 41% said they were embarrassed or shameful. Women condition themselves to minimize or de-escalate problems (1). We routinely shrug off casual sexism and conceal transgressions made against us for fear of consequences or "making waves." We learn that it is better to stifle our feelings and inner turmoil and mask them with a veneer of "femininity." Inside we are geysers — pressurized, fuming, violent, unpredictable; outside, we are pleasant, effervescent, familiar, clean.

The true reason why I was retreating to my shell is that I’d been feeling 'off.' I have been slowly battling anxiety, and there are days when I simply feel like cannot face the world. However, I find myself guilty of surprising my anxiety. I force myself to be agreeable, sociable, and cheerful. I guard myself — my true anxious, messy self — with a facade. Kelly O’Connor’s Old Faithful is a reminder that, despite appearances, women are constantly fighting battles big and small. Instead of normalizing feminine facades, we should allow women to be openly expressive, emotive, and even eruptive. (1)

Image from: You can read O’Connor’s artist statement at: Words by Chloe Medghalchi

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