A year ago, Casey O’Connell inhabited her own personal Skid Row. Art school had taught her that her work was rife with mistakes. She moved to New York City, where gallery after gallery rejected her work. Throughout it all, she was nursing a broken heart in the specific way that artists do: fifty times more intensely than your average citizen. When O’Connell finally decided to move to San Francisco, her mother thought that it wasn’t the best idea.
But it was. Almost from the moment she arrived in San Francisco, O’Connell’s work has sold out of shows. Her Painted Room recently appeared in a New York Times article along with the work of two other seasoned Hotel-des-Artists. Galleries that rejected her work a few months ago are now clamoring to show it.
Asked which details of the last year she’d like included in a description of her room, O’Connell billows, “Can we just make sure that it says ‘I love my Mom a lot’?” This is like the Academy Awards for me. You could just say that and it would be all I wanted.”
O’Connell hides “secrets” in her work: references to people or things that only she recognizes.
“There are a lot of hidden shadows in there, the oil stains/shading—some are more obvious than others. Many are shadows of the boy [who broke my heart]. Like in the tree—if you follow one line carved in—if you follow it, it will be a silhouette of him. You never really see it, but you can feel it.”
“You know, I’m an optimist,” she says, “and when you walk away from that room you feel optimistic. But you feel heartache too. The shadows are there, dancing all around and you may not see them but you feel it.”
Painting at the Hotel des Arts served as both a catharsis from her personal struggles and a path to un-learning what art school taught her. As an artist, O’Connell still occasionally slips back into the murky territory of her pre-West Coast life. Though she continues to doubt certain aspects of her art, she has come to realize that doubting is part of being an artist.
“When I was painting in school, I was always trying to hide that, pretend everything was perfect, smile and get through. Then I thought, ‘what’s behind my smile? What is it that I’m trying to hide?’ I started painting blindfolded. I’d approach a layer of paint and carve away at it with the back of a paintbrush. It would show whatever I was thinking at that time–throughout the length of a song, for example. Then I’d take off my blindfold, and see the lines of a figure. I start to draw and bring out those figures. That’s how it starts.”
“All my stuff is mistakes,” she says. “That whole room is mistakes! One wall I repainted 11 times. But the layers –that’s how I get those colors. I show the mistakes, I guess . . . if it makes me 15 times to do it, does that make those times less valid? When it’s a mess-up, you hate it! But it gets me to the next step. That’s what’s carried me along in life— learning from my mistakes but keeping them visible.”