notes to send earlier

Hi, Susan:

I wish we’d gotten to know each other better in the years since we first met. We had so many people in common: we were so clearly part of the same communities. Your friends and family are shattered– this loss is immeasurably sad, obscenely premature, and you are missed beyond belief. If ever there was a case of needing a copy of “When Bad Things Happen To Good People,” this is probably it, since we can’t have you back. Given your legendary optimism, I wonder what kind of pep talk you’d give us, in coping right now. It’s rattled so many of us to lose you, a much-loved peer, so early and so unfairly: we could probably benefit from a hefty dose of your sunny perspective.

I never got to tell you that 00:56-01:04 of “A Few Yards in San Jose” made me fall in love with you back in 2006. Such a hilarious, awkward, fluid moment on a strange, suburban stage. It’s funny how first memories work like this: you, crawling through that tire swing, is how I think I’ll always remember you–not because it’s indicative of the broader scope of what you did, but because it was my first impression of you, and it was so delightfully strange.

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I didn’t really know you at the time that you exhibited that project at Southern Exposure, but I knew immediately that you were awesome, and that I wanted to be friends with you. Given all of the usual Bay Area excuses and obligations, we never managed to become close, but I was always glad when we did run into each other, and we were clearly part of the same extended family, which seemed to be just fine, and the next best thing.

Like everyone else hoping for some last whiff of you, I spent time lingering on your website, since this is what grieving looks like these days. I was struck by the ironic helpfulness of your blog entry regarding the passing of your mother last year:

I googled “how to manage grief” and “am I depressed or is it grief?” to keep things on track and to make sure that this thing doesn’t spiral. I found the bullet point checklists strangely consoling. Talk to friends, exercise, write in your journal. And remember, these things take time; everyone deals with it differently; be good to yourself; it may be hard to concentrate and be focused, they say. All things I know, sometimes easier said than done.

I also look to art that snap me out of ambivalence and into some clarity. I’m reminded of the human-ness of this endeavor – the primal need to scratch something down, create something out of sorrow, joy, and suffering. The act of doing something, however simple, is transformational. I’m renewed in my belief in the process, and I can hear my mom tell me: if it takes more energy to frown than be happy, trick your brain and smile.”
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Dear Richard:
It’s clearly been a rough couple of weeks in the tattered remains of the Bay Area art community, and I’m mightily ticked off to be having to write to you, too. I’m also extremely pissed that this is what your so-called “retirement schedule” turned out to be, after so many decades as everybody’s favorite sage curmudgeon at SFAI.

You were one of my two pillars (the other of course being Carlos) when I was a young undergrad, and truly a titan at that school. You were absolutely wonderful and hilarious: everything I learned about how to balance insightfulness and irreverence in the classroom came directly from you, I’m pretty sure. Thank you for your sharp humor, your keen eye, your twisted, masterful dexterity with language, your quirky mentorship and beneath it all, your care and thoughtfulness.


I’m grateful every day that you helped shaped me as a young artist, and that you gave me so many opportunities to grow as a sculptor and a teacher over the years. While it was too little too late, I’m glad that I managed to visit you before you left: I wish I’d known sooner. I’ll miss the hell out of you.

This final segment of this piece of writing from your website hits home, and brings up these notions of ego, mortality and recognition that all of us struggle with, but artists perhaps in their own way:

A more remote memory returns in considering this question, by way of Famadou Don Moy, the percussionist with the Art Ensemble of Chicago. He performed solo at the Art Institute some years ago, he filled the stage with a an enormous array of percussion instruments, big, small, formal, informal, Chinese gongs and hubcaps, a night clerks bell and a trap drum set, among many others. He came slowly to the stage from the back of the auditorium, playing a drum in a sling that also was a rattle, bells on his feet and wrists, striking both ends of the drum with maracas, the movement of every extremity expressed in sound, and he chanted: “to all great Black musicians, known and unknown”. Known and unknown. It was an invocation to acknowledge ALL those who gave their lives in pursuit of the great human service, the service of the artist, summarizing peoples experiences in time and space, turning the sometimes unbearable discrepancy between the way things are and the way they ought to be into something that makes us want to dance.
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It’s funny how these dates somehow still read like an exhibition announcement.

Susan O’Malley, 1976 – February 25, 2015
Richard Berger , Dec 5, 1944 – March 3, 2015