Susan O’Malley and Tiny Beautiful Things

In advance of Sunday’s public celebration of the life of Susan O’Malley, I offer those who are reeling from loss a book recommendation, which Susan presciently shared with me.  

Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on love and life from Dear Sugar, by Cheryl Strayed. // Source:

Let yourself be gutted. Let it open you. Start here.

—Cheryl Strayed


Susan was reading Cheryl Strayed’s Tiny Beautiful Things: Advice on Love and Life from Dear Sugar when we roomed together on an art trip to Poland. She spoke glowingly about it, and highly recommended it to me. This was in early September 2012. Later that month, one of the worst things that have happened in my life, one which I wouldn’t wish upon anyone, happened.

In grief, my heart felt beaten and bloodied, like it was cleaving itself from my chest. My universe had been permanently re-arranged, and I walked around in a state of shock for months. I wasn’t sure of anything: why I do anything, what the point was. I wondered how to avoid subjecting loved ones to what I’d been through when my own time came. The hurt of life—and death—seemed inescapable.

Strayed is no stranger to the loss of a parent, and those indescribable, intensely personal, most idiosyncratic emotional experiences categorized as grief. She wrote candidly and forcefully about it in Tiny Beautiful Things and Wild. Strayed somehow found the words and the strength to acknowledge the brutality of such loss. Her honesty also lets in cracks of light: unfathomably, imperfectly, we go on. We might be total fucking messes, but we also have to try, even if we fail, to forgive and love ourselves.

On my way home from three of the worst weeks of my life, I sent Susan a message from the airport. I had to thank her for her recommendation. My mourning felt isolating, but Strayed’s words offered moments of familiarity and acceptance. Maybe it can do the same for you, and thereby join the multitude of ways in which Susan’s wisdom lives on.

Community, Make Things (Happen)

In Remembrance: Susan O’Malley

It is with immense sadness that I share that Susan O’Malley suddenly passed away.

Susan was an artist, curator, and member of the tight-knit San Francisco Bay Area art community. She was my friend and collaborator. She recently contributed to Make Things (Happen), and I last saw her at the opening reception on February 6. She was pregnant with twin girls, and almost due. Susan was radiant, and as characteristically good-humored as ever.

Susan’s positivity in person and via her artworks left countless people with brighter days. I aspired to be more like her: to embody more compassion, forgiveness, and kindness; to be magnanimous in my relationships and outlook; and to let go of what I can’t control.

I have always admired her work—an enthusiastic blend of relational and text-based practices—for its elegant simplicity, humor, and unabashed enthusiasm. It was borne out of her unshakable faith in optimism. She embraced the risk of being sentimental, trusting that sincerity is a virtue that redeems feeling self-conscious or ridiculous. All of us, Susan insisted, are capable of wisdom and love. She asked us to open our hearts to possibilities.

Many of us defend ourselves from the slings and arrows of everyday life with cynicism. Susan remained unapologetically affirmative, even in sustained grief as her mother endured a lengthy terminal illness. That fact speaks to the courage of her humanity.

I saw this in her work, One Minute Smile, when I was still fresh in the clutch of bereavement of my dad. Exemplifying her generosity of spirit, Susan shared an intensely personal, vulnerable moment with a room full of strangers and friends. As she made eye contact with us, we became more present and mindful. Together, Susan helped us acknowledge: Yes, we are fragile… and yes, we have yet-undiscovered reserves of resilience within us, too.

I’m grateful for Susan for sharing her light with me, and helping me and many others find more of our own. She will be dearly missed.

Susan O'Malley with her mobile billboard stating "You Are Exactly Where You Need to Be" in the Art Moves Festival in Torun, Poland, September 2012.

Susan O’Malley with her mobile billboard stating, “You are exactly where you need to be.” Art Moves Festival, Torun, Poland, September 2012.

Romer Young Gallery annoucement
Christian L. Frock, “Celebrating the Life of Artist and Curator Susan O’Malley (1976–2015),” KQED

Learn more about public memorials and a memorial fund for the arts:


Not because it’s easy, but because it often isn’t:

Susan O'Malley, One Minute Smile (participatory performance documentation), 2013

Susan O’Malley, One Minute Smile (participatory performance documentation), 2013 // Source:

It’s an invitation to us, really. To try to smile every day, even on the days when we least want to.

—Susan O’Malley
Community, Works

Susan O’Malley, One Minute Smile

Make Things (Happen)

To Know and Believe: An Interview with Lauren Marie Taylor

Lauren Marie Taylor’s projects often engage astronomy and social practice towards poetic, personal gestures. The San Francisco-based artist invited the public to probe the twin histories of astronomy and astrology as part of Make Things (Happen), an exhibition of 45 artist-created activity sheets which closes this Sunday, March 1 at Interface Gallery.

I was introduced to Lauren’s work by Make Things (Happen) artist Bean Gilsdorf, and took this opportunity to learn more about how her work is inspired by both science and mysticism.


Lauren Marie Taylor (center) guiding participants through the star chart activity at the opening reception at Interface Gallery.

Lauren Marie Taylor (center) guiding participants through the star chart activity at the opening reception at Interface Gallery.


Christine Wong Yap: During the Make Things (Happen) opening on February 6, you invited the public to make star charts, create new constellations, and officially name and dedicate their own stars. Can you tell me more about how it worked?

Lauren Marie Taylor: Each participant drew a constellation on a blank star map of the Northern Hemisphere. I asked them to consider a shape that better reflected their personality than their zodiac sign. In my experience, there are some ways that my zodiac seems accurate, but I often think about how vague it must be if I and others also feel this way. Then I gave participants the chance to have a star in their new constellation registered on “the most popular star registry on the internet.” This included naming the star and giving it a dedication—a sentence or two—which I registered and wrote on individualized certificates sent to participants.

I was moved by the sincerity with which participants named and dedicated their stars. It was even better than I had hoped. The ability to suspend judgment of the ‘authenticity’ of registering a star, and embrace the activity as a poetic gesture (or whatever framework allowed participants to engage) is really special to me. It says something about the power of our imagination that feels really hopeful, open, and loving.


Caroline Charuk with her Chair Constellation.

Caroline Charuk with her Chair Constellation.


CWY: Your activity sheet for Make Things (Happen), Know and Believe, includes a detailed history of astronomy and astrology. Then it ends on a philosophical note, questioning how we know what we know. There’s a mix of history, science, and the unknown that is very appealing. It feels expansive. The activity calls for reading, reflection, as well as making—three very different experiential modes. In developing projects, what are your considerations for viewers’ receptions and experiences?

LMT: I think of myself as my first audience, and I wanted to make something for myself that inspires the feelings that I want to feel. In this instance, it was about the cosmos, history, and human nature. For me, making is a way of meditating on an idea, and so I always want the making to allow for that. I have a background in teaching, and it is difficult for me to approach any subject in a way that is not didactic, but open to interpretation and chance. So I force myself to consider whether I am giving too much or not enough instruction. I want the participant to have an experience that feels meaningful and personal. I want too much control! And I want to let go as well.

CWY: I can relate! It’s tricky to craft a specific aesthetic experience, yet remain flexible and patient for collaboration or open-endedness… As your art practice is clearly influenced by non-art fields, I wanted to turn the question around: Do you incorporate aesthetics, social practice, or poetics in your role as Bay Area Director of Educator Associates for the American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics?

LMT: It has been the greatest blessing to be in this position. It has allowed me to bring my social practice into unexpected institutions. At the California Academy of Sciences, for example, I asked satellite engineers to teach the basics of their work to children. Each child made an edible model satellite; afterward, I asked them, “What will your satellite do?” and documented their responses. I was interested in how children conceive of this technology, where their understanding comes from, and what this says about our culture. They had really funny responses, from “It will lead me to my space home,” to “It will take pictures of criminals.”

I also had the opportunity to work with the Curator of Meteorites and Asteroids at the Vatican Observatory this winter. Many people are surprised to learn that the Vatican has an observatory. It’s one of the oldest institutions to do so. And I also worked with Brother Bob, a Jesuit who takes care of this historic rock collection, to learn more about the intersections between science and faith.

CWY: Do you have any superstitions? Why or why not?

LMT: I am not really a superstitious person, but I do all kinds of silly things anyway. I knock wood, I toss salt. I read my horoscope even though I don’t believe. I don’t believe in god. But I want to leave room for mystery in my life. And I want to be gentle with myself. To perform these superstitious acts, for me, is a way to say, “I need help. I am afraid. I need strength.” And that is okay. I love the work of Chilean filmmaker and mystic Alejandro Jodorowsky. His concept of psychomagic—a type of therapeutic practice involving symbolic action—is very inspirational to me. Belief is a strong force, but not as influential as the action that is based on the belief. You can actually manifest the desire through the action, without believing! In that way, knocking wood is more important than believing that knocking wood has power.

CWY: Your practice spans relational projects as well as education and object-making. Can you talk about the significance of each of these, and how they relate or feed each other?

LMT: I don’t really separate object-making and education from social practice. In my work, I think of all of it as social practice. They are all tools that allow for different modes of engagement with ideas.

Shoot for the stars by making your own constellation with Lauren Marie Taylor’s activity sheet at Interface Gallery through March 1, or online.

Also, look for her forthcoming exhibition at Southern Exposure in late May, along the themes of Walt Disney’s audio-animatronic Lincoln robot, civil rights, and science fiction.

how to participate: take an activity sheet. make things happen. make things. share your results. #mkthngshppn

Make Things (Happen)

Making Hospitable Democracy Happen: An Interview with Lexa Walsh

On February 7, Oakland-based artist Lexa Walsh brought together twelve individuals for a home-cooked meal and recipe exchange to facilitate conversation and community. Called Meal Ticket, the public event was held in conjunction with Make Things (Happen), an exhibition I organized featuring 45 artist-created activity sheets, which is currently on view at Interface Gallery through March 1. Afterwards, I was inspired to ask Lexa more about her practice.


Participants at Meal Ticket with Lexa Walsh (standing) at Interface Gallery, Oakland, CA. Photo: Amanda Eicher.

Participants at Meal Ticket with Lexa Walsh (standing) at Interface Gallery, Oakland, CA. Photo: Amanda Eicher.


Christine Wong Yap: At the start of Meal Ticket, you mentioned a key concept of your practice. Can you describe “hospitable democracy,” and how it came about?

Lexa Walsh: A few years ago, I took a great class with Havana-born, New York-based artist Tania Bruguera for Portland State University’s (PSU) Art and Social Practice grad program. She insisted we all find key words to describe our practice that would be new word combinations in the end, like her use of  “Useful Art” (Arte Útil). I searched for something that could describe my diverse practice. In the end, I realized most of my projects try to be hospitable and make democratic spaces for participation and collaboration—for amateurs and experts, artists and laypeople—in the form of conversation, songwriting, critique, meal sharing, resource sharing, etc. Voila: Hospitable Democracy.


A Meal Ticket recipe card told and recorded by participants Smitty and Elizabeth. Photo: Lexa Walsh.

A Meal Ticket recipe card told and recorded by participants Smitty and Elizabeth. Photo: Lexa Walsh.


CWY: When I think about my experience of Meal Ticket, I realize I came away with three things: beautiful food, an uncommon exchange and dialogue with a stranger, and ephemera (a recipe book and a screen printed placemat). What is the significance of each of these elements to you?

LW: Each Meal Ticket differs depending on the context. In this case, it was pretty simple: the joy and essence of sharing a nice meal, the role of the host as curator of an experience (both sensorially with the food and experientially with the conversation), and then the recipe exchange as a conversation starter. Through the discussion of recipes—a set of instructions—we discuss our cultures, families, and belief systems. I propose we are all equals and become a community in the temporary utopia of a luncheon, and through the cookbook. Community cookbooks have a long legacy as collective memoirs of place and culture that help identify and celebrate communities. They have given voices to voiceless individuals; they published many women for the first and only times in their lives. For Meal Ticket, the cookbook is mainly for the primary audience: the diners. When I do a series of meals, all participants become part of that community.

It gets really interesting where the context is more political, with seating charts and recipes spanning social, cultural, and financial boundaries. Two examples are at Portland Art Museum—a series of 12 meals with all levels of staff sharing meals in the boardroom—and in New Smyrna Beach, FL—12 meals that had to be moved around to accommodate a racially diverse but segregated town. Meal Ticket is most effective in contexts where barriers need to be broken down.

As for the placemats: I am trying to make stuff again after a five-year hiatus from making objects!


Placemat by Lexa Walsh, screen printed as an Artist in Residence at Kala Art Institute. Photo: Christine Wong Yap.

Placemat by Lexa Walsh, screen printed as an Artist in Residence at Kala Art Institute. Photo: Christine Wong Yap.


CWY: You’re currently an Artist in Residence at Kala Art Institute in Berkeley. It was once a fairly traditional printmaking studio; now it welcomes many media and practices. What inspired you to make objects—and specifically, prints—again?

LW: I stopped making objects after an amazing 2009 studio visit with Nashville-based artist Mel Ziegler, who suggested my objects were “accessorizing” the real essence of my work. I have a background in sculpture and performance, so I had no problem challenging myself to a “year without objects.” That turned into five years, until I realized my practice consisted of emails and meetings. I wanted to get back to that feeling of making. Since I’d mostly been outsourcing printed ephemera, I thought it would be fun to get into the craft of making multiples. I’ve been having a really hard time, though! What does it mean to make an image or an object? Why bother? What are the stakes when dealing with craftsmanship? These are questions running through my head now, as I am simultaneously enjoying making objects.


CWY: The placemat bears something like an epigraph for the meal. It ends by affirming that “failure is always an option.” What do you hope to convey?

LW: I love failure! Failure is a place from which to move forward, to learn, to experiment, and to get sidetracked in potentially interesting ways. I have gained a lot from failing. I know a lot of artists and others who fear it, but I think we should embrace it.


CWY: In addition to being an artist, you work as a chef. These skills clearly help with your food-related projects. In what other ways does being a chef parallel artistic activity—say, as a facilitator of socially-related projects? Yet providing food is also related to providing a service, suggesting a different type of relationship to participants. How do you think about these parallels and relationships?

LW: It’s funny because I refused to combine food and art until my second year of graduate school. They just were separate for me. I had a great Graduate Assistantship as Program Caterer. Everyone wondered why I wouldn’t start incorporating food into my practice. The first Meal Ticket was born from that pressure.

It is so true that chef skills are useful, because as a social practitioner, I basically plan events as my practice. It’s good to have skills such as organization, time management, hospitality, etc. Service is always a part of my practice, but so is facilitating and curating.


CWY: You, as well as others, recommended several PSU alum for the expanded version of the project in Oakland: Ariana Jacob, Betty Marín, Hannah Jickling and Helen Reed, for example. I’m curious about what seems like a small world of social practitioners. In what ways is this emergent field establishing conventions? What do you see as the most exciting frontiers?

LW: I’m not sure there’s anything unconventional or new from this ‘emerging’ field—there’s so much tied into both art history and the practices of a variety of fields, into which we dip our hands, such as Allan Kaprow’s Happenings, Mierle Ladermen Ukeles’ Maintenance Works, Adrian Piper’s Calling Cards, Joseph Beuys, Yoko Ono’s Cut Piece, Fluxus, Group Material, Allison Knowles’ Salad, Gordon Matta-Clark’s Food, and the contemporary Erwin Wurm. There are many people I look back to for my own practice, as well as to envision the larger field.

What seems interesting is when or when not to call it art. What are the benefits? What avenues can be traversed by calling it art and vice versa? I think artists are doing great projects in fields like disability/accessibility, museum education, and activism. For example, Vancouver-based Carmen Papalia, another PSU cohort member, addresses accessibility in museums with a tour in which participants describe the work to him (he is visually impaired). Projects by Los Angeles-based collective Machine Project and Portland Art Museum’s Shine a Light program inject the once-unthinkable into museums: scholarly play, dancing, cheers, music, debates, wrestling, sleepovers, plant babysitting, orienteering, celebrating immigrant labor, and more. I think it also gets interesting when artists collaborate with people from other fields. Some of the most exciting artists are those who have worked in other fields before identifying as artists.


Lexa Walsh’s Make Things (Happen) contribution is an activity sheet that describes the Meal Ticket process. You can download it or pick one up at Interface Gallery through March 1.

how to participate: take an activity sheet. make things happen. make things. share your results. #mkthngshppn

Make Things (Happen), News

Your Turn: Make Things (Happen) This Weekend

Pick up Make Things (Happen) activity sheets at Interface Gallery this weekend! The gallery is open from 11 to 4.

If you’re not in Oakland, you can download them at

Pavel Romaniko,  Do-It-Yourself Joseph Kosuth “One and Three Chairs” installation

Make your own seminal Conceptual artwork in miniature papercraft form with Pavel Romaniko’s Do-It-Yourself Joseph Kosuth “One and Three Chairs” installation.

Lauren Marie Taylor, Know and Believe

Lauren Marie Taylor, Know and Believe Make your own constellation and consider how you know what you know with Lauren Marie Taylor’s Know and Believe.

And check out what SF Weekly had to say!

Make Things (Happen) includes a great many more participating artists, which means a lot more choices for us. While some of the artists’ instructables can be executed solo, Yap is a great fan of the Venn diagram: Overlapping with others is the real payoff.

Tudor, Silke. “DIY Gallery.” SF Weekly. January 28.

Silke Tudor, DIY Gallery, SF Weekly.


See: Art Season again

Though it feels like the dead of winter, there are lots of art shows and events on the horizon, on both coasts. 

Ortega y Gasset, the artist’s collective I am in, will have a new home at the Old American Can Factory in Gowanus! Exciting exhibitions are lined up for this Spring. Don’t miss them; sign up for updates!

3/13–4/12: Thinking & Touching Time, curated by Zahar Vaks, Ortega y Gasset Projects @ Old American Can Factory, Gowanus, Brooklyn

2015: Land and Sea’s project space, Oakland, CA:



Little Syria Parade, in  Lower Manhattan’s first Arab-American neighborhood, envisioning an early-20th century Manhattan skyline.

Little Syria Parade, in Lower Manhattan’s first Arab-American neighborhood, envisioning an early-20th century Manhattan skyline.

2/25: Edge of Arabia presents Brian Zegeer’Little Syria Parade, Lower Manhattan
2/27–3/27: Michelle Blade: If the Spirit Moves You @ ‘Pataphysical Society, Portland, OR

2/28: Art + Process + Ideas (A+P+I) residency Open House at Mills College, Oakland, CA


Works on paper by Anthony Ryan (left) and Annie Vought (right).

Works on paper by Anthony Ryan (left) and Annie Vought (right).

3/6–28: Annie Vought & Anthony Ryan @ Adobe Books Backroom Gallery, San Francisco

Through 3/8: Trajectory @ Van Der Plas Gallery, LES, NYC

Through 3/19: Hydrarchy: Power, Globalization, and the Sea @ SF State Fine Arts Gallery, organized by Mike Arcega



4/4: Who We Be: Superpanel on Art, Protest and Racial Justice, with Jeff Chang, Alicia Garza, Ben Davis, Steven W. Thrasher, and Christian L. Frock, moderated by Elizabeth Travelslight, Bay Area Society for Art and Activism @ San Francisco Main Library