While the end of summer might be quickly approaching, imagery and feelings surrounding the season live on forever in San Antonio-based Kelly O’Connor’s collages. Often drawing upon nostalgia associated with road trips as a child, O’Connor uses resorts, amusement parks, and other tourist destinations to explore larger themes surrounding American life, past and present.
O’Connor’s collages have been widely featured in solo and group exhibitions, and can be found in numerous private and public collections, including that of the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio.
In advance of her upcoming exhibition at David Shelton Gallery in Houston, O’Connor and I visited about her process, her previous bodies of work, and what she has been up to as of late.
Caleb Bell (CB): Before we dive into your artwork and artistic practice, could you share a little about your role at Ruby City in San Antonio? How long have you been there and what are some of your responsibilities?
Kelly O’Connor (KO): I’ve been with the Linda Pace Foundation, which operates Ruby City, since January 2006. I started as Linda’s studio assistant and was the first registrar of the Linda Pace Foundation Collection.
Today, I’m the Head of Collections and Communications. I manage our communication and marketing efforts. As far as collections management, I manage all the administrative work involved with acquisitions. I also manage the installation of artworks for exhibitions.
CB: I know you started working with Linda pretty soon after graduating from the University of Texas at Austin with your BFA. During your time as Linda’s studio assistant, what are some of the things you learned about being a professional artist? How have those lessons impacted your career?
KO: My time with Linda was so brief but so impactful (January 2006-July 2007). She was very generous with her time and thought process. She gave me the opportunity to project manage several installation-based works, where I had resources to work with various fabricators and secure some pretty unique items, such as a vintage VW Bug. She would tell me her vision but would task me to figure out how to execute it.
One of the most challenging artworks was a mirrored igloo. She asked me to create a whimsical pattern on the interior and exterior of a 9 foot diameter dome; think Niki St. Phalle meets Jim Hodges’ mirror mosaic works. The process I developed of fitting these mirrored pieces together is very similar to the technique I use in my collage works today.
CB: Speaking of your collage work, let’s discuss some of the more technical aspects of your process. While you hand cut a variety of shapes and images depending on the piece or project, hexagonal shapes seem to make up a large part of your collages. How and why did you settle on the hexagon?
KO: The hexagon came about in kind of an odd way. I was installing for my show at Sala Díaz in 2010 and discovered large abandoned wasp nests. I ended up painting them and incorporating them into the exhibition. After working with them for so many hours, the hexagon shape of the comb sort of radiated into my subconscious.
Shortly after this show I started cutting out, via X-acto knife, hexagons with various-sized stencils and piecing them together like a puzzle. I found the hexagons together sort of worked like a softened grid. The hexagon is more dynamic than, say, a square. Hexagons can cut down to other shapes, like diamonds and triangles. When pieced together, they create hypnotic jewel-like patterns.
CB: As far as your collage elements go, the finishes range from glitter-covered to slightly worn. What are your source materials?
KO: I use mostly old record covers and scrapbook cardstock. I love record covers for their patina and their variety of technicolor hues. I’m mostly collaging on digitally printed photos. The ink used to print these photos comes in a limited range of colors: cyan, yellow, magenta, and black. The record covers, in contrast, have a much more saturated look.
I love scrapbooking paper because I can find all sorts of textures and reflective materials, like foil and glitter paper. I’ve really gotten into this ombré micro-glitter paper that I’ve utilized a lot in my upcoming show at David Shelton Gallery.
CB: The digitally printed photos you use typically shape the narrative of each piece and vary in subject matter from series to series. In your exhibition Last Resort at Women & Their Work in 2013, there were several collages from your Bottom of the Pool series, featuring collaged swimming pools at resorts. That series is ongoing — can you elaborate on what those works mean to you?
KO: I think the thread that runs through all of the landscapes I select is that they are fabricated. Disneyland is an extreme example, and a complete façade of fantasy. However, even environments like Yellowstone National Park have an element of controlling the viewer’s experience.
When I was in college at UT, my professor Mel Ziegler introduced us to a lot of critical theory analyzing the controlled nature of these spaces and how inauthentic these surrogate experiences are. To add to that, some of my most cherished memories are visiting these resorts and landscapes of leisure during family vacations from my childhood.
These two converging ideas have continued to inspire my work for the past 20 years. I love the saccharine aesthetics of these MCM American utopian destinations, and think what’s happening and has happened behind the façade of these places is terribly interesting.
The pool pieces embody a similar tension. The swirling, kaleidoscopic patterns act as a metaphor for the disillusionment of these environments. I also want them to be beautiful and have a contemplative effect, which mimics staring into the ebb and flow of the bottom of a pool.
CB: Aside from your personal aesthetic preference of the mid-century imagery and color palette, the use of those elements definitely evokes a sense of nostalgia. How does that play into the larger narrative you are creating in your works?
KO: The facade of American idealism was prevalent during this time. I like how blissful everything was on the surface, but no one was really dealing with all their issues. I’ve recently started appropriating Slim Aarons’s work, which often focuses on the whitewashed elite living their “best lives.” I often think about what was actually happening behind the scenes in stories such as Valley of the Dolls by Jacqueline Susann. Much like Aarons’s documentation, everyone looks fabulous, but in actuality it was a pretty terrible time for women, and/or anyone identifying as LGBTQ+ and people of color.
CB: In addition to your Valley of the Dolls series, would you say that same facade and idea is what inspired your No Man’s Land body of work?
CB: Before we wrap up, I wanted to discuss your more recent printmaking. Over the last couple of years, you have done a few screen prints as well as collaged editions. How has working with printmaking impacted your artistic practice? Do you currently have plans for any new prints?
KO: My goal with the prints and handcrafted editioned work is to make them more accessible for folks to collect. The large-scale original works take hundreds of hours to complete and can ultimately become quite costly. I’m so honored that people want to live with my work in their homes, and I don’t want the cost of the work to prevent that from happening.
The handcrafted editions are digitally printed reproductions of my collages with a few hand collaged elements. The only drawback to these collaged editions is they cannot be rolled up, and therefore are costly to ship. My goal is to create a new handcrafted edition where the collector receives the print rolled up along with the collage elements, for them to DIY collage themselves. Hopefully, I can launch this edition before the holidays. The distributor would be Feliz Modern in San Antonio.
CB: Lastly, you touched on your upcoming exhibition at David Shelton Gallery. Besides the aforementioned pieces, is there anything else about the included works that you would like to share?
KO: The show is titled PLUNGE POOLS. They are all new works from 2021-2022. It’s a series of pool works; some are man-made pools and others are natural thermal springs from Yellowstone. The exhibition will be on view September 10 through October 15.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.