What advice would your 80-year-old self give to your present-day self? That is precisely the question artist Susan O’Malley asked of more than a hundred ordinary people of all ages. Then, she transformed their responses—bits of advice, reminders, calls to action and words to live by—into vibrantly hued, visually arresting images. The result is a compendium of wisdom that proves you don’t need to be an octogenarian to think like one.
Sadly, the brainchild behind the project, artist Susan O’Malley, didn’t live to see it reach completion. O’Malley died unexpectedly in 2015, while pregnant with twins, at only 38 years of age. Her friends, family and surrounding community have found comfort in her artwork, and the text-based images from Advice From My 80-Year-Old Self are one of the many legacies she leaves behind: extraordinarily optimistic reminders to live each day to the fullest.
Read it Forward: This book really resonated with me last year because it came out soon after my father passed away after a battle with cancer. I think a lot of other people have similar feelings about this book. Can you tell me a little bit about how you and Susan originally met?
Christina Amini: Susan and I met in college. We both went to Stanford, and we lived in the co-ops. They were these funny hippie cooperative housing units where we would make all of our decisions based on consensus. I lived in one with some of my friends, and Susan lived in the other with other friends, and our friend groups overlapped. Our senior year, we lived in the same house with ten friends and after graduation, we lived with a bunch of friends. We were both humanities majors and we didn’t know what we wanted to do when we grew up. But we knew we wanted to live with friends, so we decided to move to New York without jobs. So we were also roommates in Brooklyn at two different places.
RIF: What year was this?
CA: This was 1999, so it was a little more possible to move cross-country without a job. It was really just the naiveté of being 21—I know what I’m going to do, I’m going to move to New York without a job! But all of us found jobs; we all landed. And we had each other.
RIF: Pieces always seem to fall into place somehow. What was it about Susan’s personality that drew you to her?
CA: Susan was really funny and silly and honest and unpretentious. She was a really good friend. Personality-wise, she was buoyant. There was an article written that described her as a magnetic librarian. I thought that was apt. She was really smart and quirky but then she was also so caring, thoughtful, and loyal as a friend.
RIF: Wow. So talk to me about Pep Talk Squad, which I love. I wish you guys were still in existence.
CA: I know, me too. Someone asked me at one of these public programs if we could do the Pep Talk Squad and I was like, well I can’t do it without Susan. There’s not a squad of one.
CA: Susan was an Urban Studies major in college. She went to work at an advertising agency, among other things, when we lived in New York and then she decided she was going to quit her job and make artwork and then apply to art school. It had always been something that she was interested in, so she decided to move back to California. In 2003, she started grad school at California College of the Arts. She was in the first year of what they call their Social Practice program. The program was about the experience of art, or thinking about art in ways other than the physical object that you create.
I think she pitched me the idea when she was in the beginning of graduate school, so in 2003. For one of her first projects, she said, hey, maybe we should start a Pep Talk Squad. Because Susan asked, I said yes. It was fun to do things with Susan. We had matching red jackets that had Pep Talk Squad on the back in red letters. We both would wear white pants and we had matching t-shirts. The first time we did it, we went to this thing called the Arts Jam at a community college in San Jose. There was a bunch of people and we offered free pep talks. First, it consisted of us asking if people needed pep or encouragement on anything. You know, we’re wearing these totally goofy outfits, and often people would say sure, why not. I think the humor of our ask and of our outfits allowed them to say yes. We would spend about 15 minutes talking with them or asking them questions about what they wanted pep or encouragement on.
The cool thing about a pep talk is that when you’re asking somebody what they need encouragement on, you’re asking them what they’re vulnerable about. So it’s this really fast way of getting into what people were thinking and what they were feeling. It was much faster than small talk at a party, where you’re talking about your commute or your job or something. When you ask someone what they want pep or encouragement on, all of a sudden we were at this much deeper place with somebody.
One of us would be asking the questions and the other one would be sitting at a typewriter typing up the pep talk. We would switch off doing this. There was a huge range of subjects that people wanted pep talks on. There was a DJ who felt sad because people heard his voice and then thought he was going to look a different way. There was someone who just wanted a pep talk on doing the dishes. Somebody about feeling lazy, somebody about having a broken heart, or wanting to find love. Anyway, one of us would write the pep talk and the other would take the lead of asking questions, and then at the end, we would pull the paper out of the typewriter and read it to them.
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So, I don’t know what you might want pep or encouragement on, but it would be something like, “Abbe, your emphasis on thinking about your dad has been noticed. We know you will succeed in continuing his legacy…” I’m making it up, but it would be something that would resonate with something you’ve told us. We would try to get the pep or encouragement out of what the person had given us, and then we would cheer for them at the end. We would lower our hands and then raise them up and say, “Yay, Abbe!” Then you would get a button at the end that said, “I’ve had a pep talk today,” kind of like you have voted style. We had a whole mess of different buttons that you would get at the end, different things that said “Yes!” and “The world needs its pep.”
We started off at this one art fair and then we continued. It worked, so it was really, like, Wow that was interesting! It was completely exhausting having to be that present and focused, but it was also a quick and fascinating way to connect to people in the world.
People would write us letters or post cards about what they had gotten out of it. Some would hang their pep talk up on their wall to remember it. It felt like a small thing, but it had more to give than you might expect. We did them at CCA where Susan went to college—art students were really hard to give pep talks to. We went to Duke University and gave those kids pep talks, we did it at parks and parties, and then we did them at two different art organizations, Southern Exposure art gallery, and Pro Arts. It was kind of an installation of pep talks.
RIF: That’s so cool. It reminds me of this traveling group of haiku writers I saw at a party once.
CA: Yeah, it’s kind of that style. Like when you see a poet with a typewriter on the street and you go up to them and they just kind of compose on the spot.
RIF: It’s a combination of improv theater and art and psychology.
CA: We would joke that our credentials were that she was an artist and my dad was a psychoanalyst. That was enough to keep us going.
RIF: This must have been so hard completing this book while you were grieving the death of your friend. How was this process for you?
CA: Honestly, it still is really hard. We had this amazing day when the book first released where all these people posted images, holding up their favorite pages from the book. It was beautiful and heartbreaking. I guess that’s what I would say about how it was to work on the book. I lead the art publishing group at Chronicle, but I was purposefully not the editor of this book. Susan was too good of a friend for me to be her editor, so another editor was actually the editor of the book.
When Susan died, she had turned in all of her artwork really early. She was expecting twins, so there was even more of a push because she wasn’t going to get anything done while she was on maternity leave. She was super-organized and turned everything in on time. She had paced the book, so we already knew where the art would fall, and she’d written the introduction. The only pieces that she hadn’t done were the end sheets, which are now these beautiful gradients. I feel like we spent so much time on them. The designer and I looked at them so many times because, I don’t know, maybe it felt important because it was one thing Susan hadn’t seen. Normally, you don’t spend that much time on the end sheets.
There were two other things that were different from what Susan turned in. She originally had the last page of the book read something like, “You’ve lived a long life. Good job.” That just felt too harsh, so we switched it to, “Love is everywhere. Look for it.” The other thing was, of course, there wasn’t an afterword because she was supposed to be alive. She was going to be there for her book. I was talking with her husband, who also went to college with us, and I told him that I thought the book needed more context. Something to talk about her life as an artist because now the book carries a greater weight of her artistic legacy. I was asking him about getting a writer to do this and he looked at me and said, “Christina, do you want to write it?” I just burst into tears because somehow that hadn’t occurred to me. I said to him, “There’s nothing I would want to do more than write for Susan.” It was such an honor but also the worst thing to have to write.
It’s interesting talking to you knowing you’re in the thick of grief, too. It’s just been so hard. Her death was unexpected and it’s also the death of the twins. Her book has kept me connected to her in the process which, at times, has been really intense. When I come to work, my work is also about Susan’s book. At the office, her artwork is everywhere because Chronicle is a wonderful place and they framed a bunch of her work and put it up in our gallery space. A lot of people at the office also have her artwork up at their desks. I ended up kind of standing in as the author in terms of decisions, but there’s also a part that makes it feel like my work life has been integrated into my personal life, so I’ve been thinking about Susan a lot. It makes me feel connected to her to be working on it.
One of my colleagues said to me, “You know Christina, it seems weird to say this but in some way, I think you’re still collaborating with Susan.” Thinking about it that way allowed me to do more. In addition to the book, there were other things happening with her work and in her honor. One of them was putting up posters of her art along Market Street in San Francisco. I applied for that to happen and as I’m filling in the name box, it’s like, do I fill in Susan? I guess I fill in my name. But when I proposed which of the pieces would be printed for Art on Market Street—which is a pretty big deal in San Francisco to have her work selected—it was right after my colleague had said that about collaborating, so it made it a little easier. I could think about doing it with her like she was asking my advice on which ones she would choose.
RIF: Exactly. Did you ever sort of listen to the sky and feel that she was guiding you in some way through the process?
CA: I guess for me it was like she gave me permission to make the choices. I didn’t feel like Susan was telling me, oh you should pick this piece of my mom’s, or your dad’s. In the book, one of the pieces of advice is from her mom, which is “Trick your brain and smile.” And one of the pieces is from my dad, who passed away ten years ago but Susan still included it. It’s sort of a gift to me that she included that. My dad’s was, “You can never catch up on having fun.”
RIF: That’s one of my favorites.
CA: So as part of the Art on Market Street posters I included those two, and I thought, is it okay that I’m picking my dad’s? I thought Susan would give me permission to do it. Susan would be like, “Christina, you can do that.” So in that way, I felt like I knew her well enough to feel her trust.
RIF: It’s so nice that you have that personal connection so it doesn’t feel like some person that didn’t know her was talking over her—as hard as it must be.
CA: Yeah, I feel like I’m the person to do it in that I’m an editor at her publisher and her very dear friend, and I love her family, too. I’ve known them for a long time. Tim, her husband, gets to have the final decision on things, I just narrow the decisions down and present them to him.
RIF: When you mentioned the end papers, and how long you spent on them, it reminded me of those gorgeous sunsets that fade from bright pink into this beautiful dusty blue.
CA: Right, yeah.
RIF: Have you ever thought about what your 80-year-old self would tell you today?
CA: I was asked this question when I went to Stanford recently. They bought some of her work and since we both went there, I was asked to speak about it. Perhaps being in that context at Stanford where I had met Susan, it made me think about how important the people we choose to be in our life are. That’s not very articulate, and maybe there’s a better way to say it, but it’s about the people you spend your time with.
I always have loved her sentiment “Love is everywhere. Look for it.” If I had to choose one of hers, I think it would be that one. In the directness of it and also in her death. I have been thinking about how love is a verb. It’s not just, oh I love you, I love this person, I love meatballs, whatever. But it’s the acts of love that people have shown me that have been the most moving. The things that they’ve actually done more than said. Maybe I’ll have to get back to you on what my real 80-year-old self would say. Maybe she is giving me an extension.
[Editor’s Note: Christina emailed us back after the interview. She writes, I thought about it a bit more, and today’s answer for “What advice would my 80-year-old self give me?” is something Susan once offered me, and my 80-year-old self agrees with—PROTECT YOUR LIGHT.]
RIF: My dad and I were both sailors, so I think mine would be “When you can’t change the wind. adjust your sails.” When you’re dealt with something that’s shitty, it’s all about how you get through it.
CA: Yeah, that’s true. I’m not sure if there’s anything to be made of this odd overlap, but Paul Kalanithi (the author of When Breath Becomes Air), was in our class at Stanford and he died just a week and a half after Susan did. And weirdly, his book officially released on the same day. Susan and Paul were friends, they both worked on a comedy sketch show at Stanford. There’s a lot of heartbreak and a lot of love for both of them.
RIF: Wow, that is heartbreaking. In a way, both of them continue to have a huge impact after their deaths. Their words hold so much meaning for so many people who may not have known them in life.
CA: It’s true. There is this physical tangible legacy of Susan’s artwork, which is beautiful and amazing, but she was much more than that, too. She was an extraordinary and inspiring person. She really did inspire and move people through her artwork and how she worked. Because I’ve known her for 20 years, I knew so many of her friends and people who she worked with in all different kinds of ways. Even still, I’m like, how many lives have you touched? More and more people I’m seeing on Instagram and Facebook are getting in touch with me about how she inspired them or encouraged them. In addition to being an artist, she had been a curator for five years and worked at a gallery before that, so she was in touch with so many artists. She had a lot of different roles in terms of encouraging artists.
RIF: She was a pep squad for artists. The funds from this book are going to the Susan O’Malley Memorial Fund for the Arts. What will that do? Who will that support?
CA: Yes, a percentage of the funds from the book will go to the Susan O’Malley Memorial Fund for the Arts. Soon after she died, one of her siblings set up the memorial fund because people were asking what they could do. It is set up to support the permanent installation of Susan’s work and to support emerging artists. That second part is really what we think Susan would want; the support of emerging artists. She was humble, so I feel like she would have been like, “I don’t know about the all about me part”… she would want to share it with other people. We’ve received a number of donations and the book proceeds will bring in more.
RIF: So in your opinion, what is Susan’s lasting legacy?
CA: One of my authors at Chronicle let me know that when she found out that Susan died, she went to the yarn store and started knitting me a scarf with text from one of Susan’s pieces: KEEP MOVING, KEEP PLAYING, KEEP DREAMING. It’s a beautiful thing—the scarf, the sentiment, and Susan’s words. On the book’s official pub day, there was so much love for Susan all around us. One of my coworkers made banana bread (something Susan loved), many took photos with their favorite pages, many in the Chronicle community and Susan’s community shared images. Susan continues to bring out love in people. I’d say that is her legacy.
RIF: And then think of all of the eyeballs that will see this book. It’s almost like a ripple effect from a stone into a pond. It’s quite an incredible thing that the two of you have made together.
CA: Well, I’ll let Susan take the credit, but that’s true, there is a part that I’m carrying forward.
RIF: You’re like the shepherd for her entire flock. Making sure it gets to safety.
Christina Amini is the Publishing Director for art books and gift products at Chronicle Books.