Two of artist Kimberly Chapman's porcelain statues on display at the Southeast Ohio History Center. The statues portray women drowning in their bedsheets.

Athens art exhibit illustrates the horrors of asylum life for women

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ATHENS, Ohio (WOUB) — There was a time when a woman could be committed to an insane asylum simply because her husband thought she was lazy.

This is one of 86 reasons a woman could be committed against her will.

“The list included ridiculous reasons why women were sent to asylums. It included everything from reading novels, to grief, to just about anything,” said Kimberly Chapman, an artist who was inspired to create an exhibit based on the list.

Chapman’s exhibit, “86 Reasons,” is now on display at the Southeast Ohio History Center on West State Street in Athens.

Chapman, a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art, has always been inspired by the hardships women faced in earlier times. After coming across a list of preconditions for admission into asylums, it sparked an idea. 

Other reasons on the list include jealousy and getting kicked in the head by a horse. Chapman said the ludicrous reasons were often just a convenient way for husbands and fathers to get rid of their wives and daughters.

“Imagine coming downstairs one morning and your bags are packed,” Chapman said. “The medical car is waiting to take you away, and you may or may not have any idea where you are going.” 

Once the women entered the asylums, their rights were limited. Chapman advocates for those women through white porcelain art structures. Each represents a different hardship, such as trophies dedicated to male misogyny and jumbo-size teeth wrapped in medical gauze. 

“In my research, I found this old shabby cabinet full of old toothbrushes,” Chapman said. “They were part of an actual asylum. I made my own version of that with 86 porcelain toothbrushes.” 

Artist Kimberly Chapman's sculptures representing 86 old toothbrushes found during her research displayed in two rows in a glass case.
Artist Kimberly Chapman’s own representation of old toothbrushes found in her research are displayed, portraying some of the indignities of asylum life. [Payton Szymczak | WOUB]
Chapman’s work portrays heartbreaking stories of the women through deeper analogies. One of the most popular pieces features three female figurines.

“Each one is wearing a different gold mask,” Chapman said. “And with these masks, one obscures thought, one obscures vision, and one obscures voice. So it’s a little bit of an emotional journey of what people went through.”

Not only is Chapman’s work displayed at the museum, but so are artifacts from Athens’ own asylum, which closed in 1993 and today is known as The Ridges. 

Jessica Cyders, executive director at the history center, said there are letters at the museum similar to one of Chapman’s ceramic pieces. Cyders said the letters were moving and sometimes difficult to read. 

“There is one piece in her exhibit that just constantly draws me, and it’s the ceramic letter,” Cyders said. “She was inspired by an actual letter from a female patient to her husband begging him to please come get her, and we have some similar letters in our collection.”

The history center also has lobotomy picks, nurses uniforms and an electro-shock therapy machine that Chapman said are directly aligned with her research. 

“My work hits on major points of what the asylum experience was like,” Chapman said. “The diagnoses, what some of the medical treatments were, and how the women emotionally experienced what was happening to them.” 

The art exhibit covers the front room of the history center, displaying the porcelain art in glass cases. The structures are accompanied by place cards to describe the art, making it more educational, which is Chapman’s goal.

“I want people to walk away with a new learning experience,” Chapman said. “New facts, new ideas, or at least an idea of what an asylum experience was like.” 

The exhibit is on display at the history center through Sept. 17. For more information on Chapman’s work, visit https://www.kimberlychapmansculptor.com.