Susan O’Malley’s legacy lives on with art installation in downtown Berkeley

Artwork by Susan O’Malley, seen here from Civic Center Park, has been installed on top of 1950 Addison St. Photo: Emilie Raguso

“Be you,” “You’re OK” and “It’s not a dumb idea” — if you’ve walked through Civic Center Park recently, you might have looked up and noticed these messages spelled out in bold capital letters on colorful panels perched atop an apartment building one block north, on Addison Street.

The installation is the work of Bay Area artist Susan O’Malley, who died suddenly in 2015 while pregnant with twins, and the messages on the artworks are culled from her book Advice from my 80-Year-Old Self: Real Words of Wisdom from People Ages 7 to 88, published posthumously in 2016.

BayRock, the developer behind the apartments under construction at 1950 Addison St., is responsible for the vibrant addition to downtown. CEO Stuart Gruendl told Berkeleyside that BayRock chose the option to include onsite public art in the development and also pay an in-lieu fee to the city, in accordance with Berkeley’s Public Art on Private Development Program. BayRock turned to its longtime independent art consultant, Karen Eichler, to spearhead the project, and it was her decision to use O’Malley’s work.

BayRock likes to include art installations on its housing developments because it allows them to stand out, and gives the property a distinct feature that can help attract residents, Eichler said.  


Eichler said inspiration struck while walking through downtown Berkeley trying to get a feel for the neighborhood’s “art ecology.” She noticed plaques near the Berkeley Repertory Theater, curated by former poet laureate and Cal Professor Robert Hass, which display written excerpts from some of Shakespeare’s works.

“There were a number of spoken-word plaques that were installed in front of the Berkeley Rep, so text-based art made sense to me in this neighborhood,” she said. “I also thought the students at Berkeley High would enjoy the affirming messages that Susan was inspired by and utilized in her work.”

The artworks are clearly visible from the Allston Way entrance to Berkeley High.

Eichler got in touch with the artist’s estate to gauge interest and the idea became a reality.

Each artwork was created with powder-coated enamel over 12 aluminum panels attached to a frame. Eichler worked closely with KVO enterprises, a fabrication studio in Santa Rosa, to ensure that the color swatches, a signature aspect of O’Malley’s work, were up to her standards. Each of the three installations is nearly 15 feet tall and 13 feet wide. The art could be up for as long as 30 years, Eichler said.

The messages on Susan O’Malley pieces are culled from her book, Advice from my 80-Year-Old Self. Photo: Emilie Raguso

The messages are simple and uncontroversial, a signature O’Malley trait. Her art broadcasts different perspectives and communicates motivational and supportive ideas.

While researching her book, O’Malley made the rounds in the Bay Area, asking people for the advice they would give themselves as an 80-year-old. In the introduction, O’Malley writes that your 80-year-old self is “likely a kinder, more courageous, and sometimes even more practical version of you.” O’Malley gathered many of the quotes from Berkeley residents at farmers markets, or from people she encountered on the street. She would consolidate lengthy answers into a phrase with just a few words, like “Practice compassion” or “It gets easier.”

Christina Amini heads O’Malley’s estate, and was one of O’Malley’s closest friends and frequent artistic collaborators. She said O’Malley had an infectious personality and strong sense of humor. She was able to get people to open up about their lives because people simply loved being around her.

Susan O’Malley in her studio. Photo: susanomalley.com

“Susan was really interested in accessibility and distribution. She was not interested in making something super opaque that only certain elite people could understand,” she said. “She was interested in making something that communicated to a lot of people. The straightforwardness of the text and color purposefully made it approachable, bright and celebratory of people’s words.”

Joey Piziali, owner of Romer Young Gallery, worked with O’Malley and holds some of her works, although none are currently for sale. He said he was impressed by the artist’s ability to “present these ‘bigger than’ and very sophisticated ideas in very accessible, digestible ways.” He also spoke about the difficulty of figuring out what to do with an artist’s work after they have died.

“We’re in no rush,” he said. “We’d rather do it right than do it quickly.”

When Berkeley High is back in session, Eichler plans to host an event in Civic Center Park celebrating O’Malley and educating students about her work. Her book will be distributed free of charge.

O’Malley’s artwork can be seen at the Oakland Museum of California, the Root Division Building and the Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga, among other places. Some of her art will also be permanently featured at the San Francisco Airport once the installation is finished.