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Humor + Ideas = Art 

A conceptual artist at work and at play

Wednesday, Mar 14 2007
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Susan O'Malley isn't what you'd call a traditional artist who paints, draws, or sculpts. O'Malley likes to get out of the studio and into the real world to tweak everyday people's perceptions.

Two years ago, she appointed herself artist-in-residence at her old neighborhood in San Jose, distributing fliers to inform residents she might change something in their front yards. Using the stuff at hand, she piled gravel, scraped leaves, revealed shadows, and "drew" with garden hoses — surrounding stumps and binding screen doors to columns.

For another project, the artist purchased two vending machines on Craigslist, filling one with pins she made of "the names of all the people in my life I can remember." The second contained pins extolling notions on art ("crap+ideas=art") and notions on life ("Let's talk" and "We are in this together").

Her art work is a combination of humor and high jinks. "I've always wanted to be funny. My secret hope and dream, when I was 7, was to be on Saturday Night Live."

But the fun in her work belies the underlying deeper message: Art can change the world if it can show us how to reframe what we see (and accept too easily) as the truth. Her work is the art of engagement with people — sometimes called "social practice" in the art world. "We need our audience to make our work become what it is," she says.

One of her ongoing people-projects is the Pep Talk Squad. O'Malley and a friend travel from place to place — schools, parks, galleries, and parking lots — manning tables loaded with brochures and inspirational pins. The duo wear red jackets emblazoned with "Pep Squad." When their walk-by clients realize they are good-spirited folk and not crazies, the strangers unburden themselves on everything from writer's block to relationship breakups to their dishes piling up. "Going into something called a pep talk, yes it's fun, but actually it is a meaningful experience," O'Malley says. "We listen to you, and cheer for you at the end. Freak you out a bit. People are surprised — that is really the delight of it. They are surprised that they actually were pepped."

Currently, O'Malley is a visiting artist at the Branson School, a private high school attended by both tuition-paying and scholarship students. After spending time in classes and hallways observing the students, she considered ways to get them together and be creative. She wound up instigating a school-wide doodle contest — authentic doodles from the margins of class notebooks were submitted and voted on by students, and enlarged to 30-by-20-inch posters. They will be part of an upcoming exhibition entitled "We are different. We are the same." Also to be included is a unique portrait of the school: a photographic "quilt" of images of each person's hands — taken by students during lunchtime.

"We wanted it to be totally inclusive," O'Malley explains. "People write notes on their hands, wear jewelry. Some have dirty fingernails or polished fingernails. Teachers and staff are there — older hands. When you look at the hands from afar, they look the same. When you come close they are very different. I give a lecture on other ways artists work, besides painting and color theory. There are times I wonder, "Are they getting it?'"

O'Malley grew up in the Willow Glen section of San Jose, one of six children. She received a bachelor's degree in urban studies at Stanford, and earned her master of fine arts from the California College of the Arts in 2006. She recently turned 30 and now lives in San Francisco.

Among her artistic influences are Harrell Fletcher and John Rubin who conducted people's garage sales in a gallery, tagging and pricing each object. "I love the garage sale. It is anthropology without all the rules, human interest in what we are doing and how we live."

At the moment, O'Malley says she and Josh Green (a local artist who recently got a mention in Dwell magazine) are "cooking up a really exciting idea for a Silicon Valley high-tech company. We would serve as "creator/innovators' to heighten the experience of working there — looking closely at cubicle design, or developing closed-circuit TV shows, or vending machine projects, that would basically lighten the burden and make the workplace a little weirder and more fun."

Yes, definitely weird, definitely fun, and definitely art — albeit art of an unconventional kind.

"There is a really rich history of artists who work in ways that are not necessarily object-oriented," she says. "Grad school made me think of work a lot more expansively: that work isn't toiling away in your studio, but that it is connected to the way you think, the way you live your everyday life, a way of seeing and observing — that things are weird. I always feel that I am doing things, and that what I am doing doesn't really fit anywhere. ... Describing it as artistic practice is the closest I can come."

About The Author

Lea Feinstein

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