Many people far and wide are reeling from news of the sudden passing of beloved Bay Area artist and curator Susan O’Malley (1976-2015), who collapsed on Feb. 25 and never regained consciousness while in her last week of pregnancy with twins, who survived only briefly. It is a catastrophic loss that cannot be softened. Now we must do the painful work of focusing on the life she lived and the optimism in her work, even as we grapple with incomprehensible tragedy. It is the only way forward to honor her life and celebrate her legacy.
O’Malley’s artwork is deeply engaged in social practice, participatory exchanges, public art and positive messaging. Often drawn from conversations, the work is generally text-based and takes the form of prints, posters and buttons, large-scale vinyl signage and billboards, as well as interventions, among other media. As a curator she worked with hundreds of artists to organize exhibitions for numerous organizations — she is widely recognized as a champion of diversity across culture, gender and age. Her rare generosity of spirit provided a tremendous example for those around her, myself included.
I first became friends with O’Malley in 2002 when we worked together at a gallery called HANG Art on University Avenue in Palo Alto. She had a great big infectious laugh, a sly humor and a complete indifference to the machinations of the so-called professional art world. If I didn’t know what to make of something, O’Malley always offered a clear sense of truth and fairness. She was a grounding presence and a true friend to many in a business where superficiality often reigns, delighting in projects that abandoned insular white cube galleries to meet people where they were in life. It tickled her to no end when her work was included in a mass-distributed book of inspirational illustrations; when her image from the book was later featured in a national circular ad for Target, she called it “a dream come true.”
We worked together on many projects over the years — crisscrossing back and forth in different situations. In 2005, I presented her Pep Talk Squad, a performance-based project produced in collaboration with her best friend writer Christina Amini, under the auspices of S. O. R. T. (the Susan O’Malley Research Team); it offered scheduled pep talks to the public at Pro Arts, an Oakland nonprofit where I was then director of exhibitions and programs. She also participated in several projects with Invisible Venue, my alternative curatorial project.
All of O’Malley’s work, both as artist and curator, reflected a rare generosity and empathy for those around her — to the extent that her boundless enthusiasm sometimes baffled cynics unable to grasp the actual work of optimism. But she knew it was work and she took it very seriously. Under her professional interests on LinkedIn, O’Malley listed: “Making the world a better place. Staying positive in a world that does the opposite.” Hers was a kind of radical positivity not often recognized because it defies every stereotype of radicalism. In a world bogged down daily by trauma in the media, she was a covert revolutionary with her bright colors, inspirational messages, encouragement, enthusiasm, and genuine personality.
Still, she was no stranger to sorrow, and tackled personal challenges with a fierce and uncommon transparency around the pain of looking for brightness in difficult times. Her 2012 solo exhibition at Romer Young Gallery (formerly Ping Pong Gallery) featured work she created with her mother, who was rapidly declining from a rare and terminal neurological disease. A series of digital prints feature her mother’s pained handwriting, offering inspirational messages. In a statement posted online, O’Malley noted, “Everything was happening very rapidly, so I asked her to write down phrases she always says to me. I think she wrote me things both of us needed to remember.”
This work exemplified O’Malley’s way of focusing on happiness in her work: by being present in the grief of loss, by modeling acceptance for the things we can’t change and by defying death with a love for life. In recent days, many have shared images of her work online, offering timely reminders that she left behind a bevy of survival strategies, embedded in every artwork. Each image tells us to come together, to treat each other tenderly, to move forward with compassion. You can, her work says. Be present. This is the center. You are here, awake and alive — and we are all in this together.
O’Malley earned a BA in Urban Studies with a focus on Community Organizations from Stanford University and an MFA in Social Practices from California College of the Arts. Her work, with collaborator Leah Rosenberg, was recently featured in Bay Area Now 7 at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. She has also exhibited at numerous alternative spaces and institutions, including Contemporary Art Museum (Houston, TX), the Parthenon Museum (Nashville, TN), and Montalvo Art Center. Her work has been exhibited as public projects in San Francisco, New York, and London, as well in other cities around the U.S., Poland and Denmark.
As Curator and Print Center Director for San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art, O’Malley organized more than 50 exhibitions, including solo exhibitions of works by Hanna Hannah and Rene Young. Recently she taught socially engaged public art practices as visiting faculty at California State University, Monterey Bay. Her work is represented by Romer Young Gallery, San Francisco and Gallery Urbane, Dallas, and is presently on view at Wave Pool Gallery in Cincinnati, Ohio.
A public art project, produced with support from Kala Art Institute, where she has been artist-in-residence, launched this month in print kiosks along San Pablo Avenue in West Berkeley. It is a timely continuation of her series Advice from my 80-year-old Self, wherein she gathered often-humorous advice from seniors about how to live in the moment.
Susan O’Malley and her daughters Lucy and Reyna are survived by her husband and their father Tim Caro-Bruce, their loving families and many friends. A public family memorial is scheduled for March 9, 11 a.m. at Villa Montalvo, where she recently created an outdoor installation, that will be on view, as artist-in-residence.
A public celebration of her life and contributions as an artist and curator is planned for March 22, from 2-5pm, at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts. In lieu of flowers, her family asks for donations to the Susan O’Malley Memorial Fund for the Arts. Details can be found on her participatory online memorial: www.morebeautifulthanyoucouldeverimagine.com.
This article was first published on the KQED Arts site on March 2, 2015. Berkeleyside has an editorial partnership with KQED.
Berkeleyside publishes many articles every day. To see all our stories in chronological order, and read ones you may have missed, check out All the News.