Art exhibition in Athens illustrates the horrors of asylum life for women

Art exhibition in Athens illustrates the horrors of asylum life for women

By: Payton Szymczak

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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 found her lazy.

This is one of the 86 reasons why a woman can be interned against her will.

“The list included ridiculous reasons why women were sent to asylums. It included everything from reading novels to heartbreak, 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 Southeastern Ohio History Center on West State Street in Athens.

Chapman, a graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art, has always been inspired by the struggles women once faced. After coming across a list of prerequisites for admission to asylums, an idea sprouted.

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

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

Once women entered asylums, their rights were limited. Chapman defends these women through white porcelain art structures. Each represents a different ordeal, like trophies dedicated to male misogyny and giant teeth wrapped in medical gauze.

“In my research, I found this shabby old cupboard full of old toothbrushes,” Chapman said. “They were part of a real asylum. I made my own version of it with 86 porcelain toothbrushes.

Artist Kimberly Chapman’s own depiction of old toothbrushes found in her research is on display, depicting some of the indignities of asylum life. [Payton Szymczak | WOUB]

Chapman’s work portrays heartbreaking stories of women through deeper analogies. One of the most popular pieces features three female figurines.

“Everyone wears a different gold mask,” Chapman said. “And with these masks, we obscure the thought, we obscure the vision and we obscure the voice. So it’s kind of an emotional journey of what people have been through.

Not only is Chapman’s work on display at the museum, but also artifacts from the Athens Asylum, which closed in 1993 and is known today as The Ridges.

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

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

The story center also has lobotomy picks, nurses’ uniforms, and an electroshock therapy machine that Chapman says are directly aligned with his research.

“My work touches on the main 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 exhibition covers the front room of the history center, displaying porcelain art in display 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 come away with a new learning experience,” Chapman said. “New facts, new insights, or at least an idea of ​​what an asylum experience was like.”

The exhibition is presented at the history center until September 17. For more information on Chapman’s work, visit

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