Tucked away in a modest, Victorian–esque ‘castle’ on a (Dignowity) Hill near downtown San Antonio, famed artist Kelly O’Connor lives to create in her quirky, curated chambers. Fortressed by an enchanted front yard of Prickly Pears and sparkling bird baths, it is evident that she is the Queen of her creative castle, with each room feeling curiouser and curiouser the further into her mod rabbit hole you fall. I recenty stepped into her wonderworld of bygone whimsy for afternoon tea to discuss her latest works, what inspires her iconic style, and how she pieced together the featured props in this issue’s Carmel Snow cover shoot…
EM: What’s in your studio right now?
KO: A lot of what’s in here is just what is left over from recent shows. Although, I’m currently working on a print project that just launched at Felíz Modern, which I am extremely excited about. That is what all of these supplies on the table are for.
EM: This looks special…what is this drawing?
KO: It is a drawing by [the late] Linda Pace of a dream that she had about me when I worked for her. She influenced me profoundly, yet she told me I also influenced her, even though I worked for her. It was such a special relationship. Here I am now, twelve years later, in charge of communications for her foundation and pursuing my Executive MBA while we transition into our new [currently under construction] home, Ruby City — a contemporary art center.
EM: Explain these new pieces you are working on:
KO: Normally, I make very intensively-crafted pieces that are expensive to collect. They are originals, and I work on each one for dozens of hours. This project I am working on with Felíz Modern is a bit different. It’s a multiple, the next one I am introducing into the market. These pieces are going to be large prints on matte paper.
I don’t ever want to make posters of my original works because I think it lessens the value of the pieces. I am making three versions of prints, and they are all going to have a silver vibe. I am strategically placing a few of these glitter flowers on the prints so they have texture to them, can be framed dynamically in a shadow box, and feel like an original work…but they are sold at a price point that is accessible to everyone.
EM: Tell me about the big umbrellas in your back yard.
KO: Those are sunburst aluminum umbrellas. I remember them from my great – grandmother’s place. She lived in a retirement trailer park, and I would go and spend my summers with her as a kid. These umbrellas were around the pool. I would sit outside with her friends playing bingo and shuffleboard all afternoon in the sun. So many of these resort – based landscapes that I create today are inspired by my childhood vacations.
My dad instilled a love of vacation in us because his summer trips as a child impacted him so fondly. It wasn’t enough to just go on a vacation when we were kids. He made sure we studied the places we were visiting well in advance, and that we had plenty of memorabilia to bring home with us once we had been there. We would look forward to that vacation all year.
He would take us on road trips in the summer to so many of these iconic American destinations that were idyllic to him as a boy, but by the time I was visiting them as a young girl, they were no longer these shiny, utopic places my dad once remembered. They were run down and worn. That undercurrent of mis-represented American Utopia is a theme that often comes out in my work.
EM: Why are you so inspired by the Wizard of Oz?
KO: Well, to start, my grandmother’s name was Dorothy and my Aunt’s name is Glenda. Even though I didn’t spend much time with them growing up, my obsession with the Wizard of Oz is oddly tied to this family history. They lived near Odessa, which is a bit of a fantastical Oz-ian -esque place because of the oil underground, sort of like Kansas.
EM: Tell me about what you pulled from your body of work to prop style our cover shoot.
KO: All of the props we used in our cover shoot were either pieces of my art, or old beauty products that I have collected over time that were part of a recent installation in Houston. Since ELEANORA Magazine is about women, and my artwork is very feminine (often incorporating vintage products and equipment into works), I had a feeling it would all just fit perfectly.
The columns that we used are pieces I fabricated from scratch for a recent installation. They were supposed to be reminiscent of an “Emerald City.” The hexagonal crystal totems were intended to give the viewer the idea of being in Oz. The big photograph piece we used in the shoot that I sat in front of in sunglasses was something I re-created from an original Richard Avedon photograph (who Rahm Carrington was portraying on shoot day). I had done pieces in the past with sunglasses on the vintage models, but this one is iconic. It is a crowd favorite for sure.
I identified with the substance in our Carmel Snow cover story very early in our collaborative process, and it resonated with me, because the reason I collect a lot of these curious vintage artifacts is to be reminded of this strange time when women were pressured into being very doll-like and non-substantive. Every day as I work to balance the pillars of my life that give me purpose, I am grateful to the women of the past who fought for those rights we enjoy today, in which ever field it was that they pioneered.
Kelly’s Quirky Collectibles:
-An old drafting table from the original Tobin offices that she repurposed into a kitchen island.
-Tinkered assemblages by the late artist Tony Feher
-Blue floor tiles throughout the kitchen, the same aqua shade of a swimming pool. An Aires and former competitive swimmer, pool water has always calmed her.
-Vintage kitchen appliances
-Her late grandmother Nonna’s bench. She asked for it when she died, because of her happy, vivid memories of sitting on it growing up. It is now the vanity seat in her master bath.
-Her late grandmother Dorothy’s emerald green glass lamp. She acquired it when she died, because she wanted something to remember her by. It is now on the table filled with mementos in her entryway.