Rosenberg (b. 1979) reflects on her mural “Getting Better Everyday a Color” (2021), commissioned as part of “Bay Area Walls” and on view in Schwab Hall through March 13, 2022. Comprised of fifty painted layers, the mural is Rosenberg’s tribute to her dear friend, the late Bay Area artist Susan O’Malley (1976–2015).
From 2009 to 2013 I worked on Floor 5 of SFMOMA at what was then the Blue Bottle Rooftop Café, making desserts based on artworks in the museum. I loved roaming the galleries looking to the art for the next new dessert and observing visitors consume art with rapture or indifference, going back up to the tiny kitchen to experiment. It was a magical time at the museum, creating desserts that made the art even more memorable. But my favorite moment involved neither art nor cake. The ritual of changing into my chef’s coat and stepping into my kitchen clogs each morning is a moment I look back on fondly. Stepping out of one version of myself into another, from the one who layers paint to the one who layers frosting, both with the intention of generosity. Art can be personal and beautiful, a collection of time and experiences.
Getting Better Every Day a Color combines my 2014-2015 time-based wall painting Everyday a color, with collaborator, friend, and artist Susan O’Malley’s 2013 list of healing exercises Getting Better Every Day, compiled in preparation for the exhibition Happiness Is… at Montalvo Arts Center.
No one saw the first iteration of Everyday a color that took place at my first residency, in 2014, at the Vermont Studio Center, which welcomes fifty artists every month. My studio was equipped with an easel, a table, and a stool. A layer of white primer had just been applied to all the surfaces, covering up any traces left behind by the previous artist.
I had a whole month ahead of me. I’d imagined what I would make but didn’t know where to start. One could spend their entire residency trying to decide what to make. I went for a walk. I noticed a green blade of grass poking through the fresh snow like a white layer of paint covering up the artists’ marks. I decided then to record each of my days there with a color I encountered, in an attempt to record people’s stories and conversations, meals we shared, and the season. Every day for that month, I painted the wall and furniture a different color: my monochromatic mantra. How can I connect to this place? How can I make something with a generous spirit that won’t take up more space in the world? When the month ended and it was time for me to leave and a new set of artists to arrive, this record of my time in that studio and all the colors of that landscape would be hermetically sealed beneath another layer of white paint. A fresh coat of paint provides optimism, a possibility, whereas everyday routines can become monotonous. In this project, optimism and everydayness co-existed, and it was surprisingly nourishing. It was during this month-long residency in Vermont that I realized I could turn to the art I make to create the daily routine I’d always craved.
In 2015, I had the opportunity to do another residency, this time at Irving Street Projects in the Outer Sunset, a storefront with windows through which passersby could witness this previously unseen artwork of a space changing color every day. I was meant to begin March 1 of that year but then Susan passed away unexpectedly. We were shocked and heartbroken. Unsure of what to do, I turned to color to express what words could not: Hot Pink. I painted the space Hot Pink in Susan’s memory and left it, glowing, for the first week of the residency. I have trouble explaining why Hot Pink is the color… Susan was silly. She’d say things like “Hot Pink…a sparkle in your center.” Susan was wise. “Hot Pink…you are exactly where you need to be.” Hot Pink for Susan.
After that week, I began. Going to the Outer Sunset, walking around the neighborhood, and collecting colors. I painted the space—the walls and furniture—a different color every day, a monochromatic tableau. I mine my environment for various shades: saffron from a sunset, lavender from a morning fog, powder blue from silly string on the sidewalk, and coral from a lone Converse sneaker left on the beach. Bringing colors from the outside in encourages viewers to pay attention to colors in their everyday—to be present.
Everyday a color at Irving Street Projects was a durational performance, much like the observance of Jewish mourning ritual, which provides somewhere to go, something to do, and ways of sanctifying time. The space became both a gathering place for friends and family of Susan’s and a portrait of the neighborhood for the neighborhood. Over time I realized the project was all about presence: collecting the colors, mixing the paint, painting the walls, and folding in personal encounters along the way. Together, this was my process for grieving.
At the end of the residency, guests were invited to help paint over all fifty layers, back to gallery white. I made a cake for the gathering. The cake was supposed to celebrate the end of the project, but what made it memorable was a complete surprise. I was up on the ladder, guests down below ready with their paint brushes. As I peeled the tape off the walls, the paint started to come off with it. As I continued to peel, all fifty layers of paint came off in sheets. The giant rolls of paint formed a relief of the space that I had gone to every day after Susan died.
Six years later, they are framed and on view in One Day At a Time at SFMOMA, a room in a room. Where Once Was None consists of three large-scale works and two smaller ones, along with the table, chair, notebook, and vase from Irving Street, still covered in fifty layers of paint, drips frozen in time.
Getting Better Everyday A Color is a redux of Everyday a color that evolved into a collaboration with Susan. I return to the palette and process from my residency at Irving Street Projects, but in reverse: what was the first color there is the final color here. Hot Pink for Susan. The installation incorporates text from Susan’s Getting Better Every Day, a list of ideas about happiness and healing. “FIND TIME EVERY DAY TO SIT ON THE FLOOR,” one reads at the halfway point. Susan made the list in 2012 and I’ve had it pinned to my studio wall since. I amended the list to include ideas expressed by artists currently on view at SFMOMA in an attempt to acknowledge our collective need for healing at this time.
The installation, on view in Schwab Hall, demands my physical presence and tracking of time. Each morning, I put on my uniform and paint a phrase from the list in that day’s color on the wall on top of the previous day’s. I then paint the whole thing over in that day’s color; the phrase appears, then gets covered with a fresh coat of paint. Another day, another color. The phrase is then hand-painted on a board, like a deli sign, to the left of the mural, paired with a swatch of its corresponding color. The list grows longer as the paint layers accumulate. Like turning to the everyday for my color palettes, I now turn to Susan’s list, giving the colors new names that incorporate her spirit. Since viewers can’t see the phrases, painted and covered every day, the signs offer what once served as a suggested practice for happiness and is now a color legend, or a healing poem.
At the end of each day, I embroider my uniform with a swatch of the color of that day, suggesting my presence in my absence. I was there. Another day, another color.
As a collaborator, Susan showed up with exuberance, wisdom, and humor. This project is a way for me to honor that spirit, and continue to collaborate. Getting Better Everyday a Color acts as a foreword to One Day At a Time: Susan O’Malley and Leah Rosenberg: two distinct bodies of work, side-by-side, both characterized by a shared belief in art’s ability to affect people’s lives for the better.
We don’t know what will happen to the fifty layers of paint in Getting Better Everyday a Color in the end. Maybe they will peel off the wall, or be hermetically sealed under a few coats of white paint, ready for the next artist to live out their dream. The work emphasizes this moment, and reiterates Susan’s affirmation “You Are Here Awake and Alive.”
Susan was a collaborator to many; I wanted to acknowledge that, so I sent a message out to her old friends, collaborators, family, and colleagues requesting a song that reminded them of her. I received a whole array of songs, from Sir Mix-a-Lot to Barbra Streisand, accompanied by stories that brought me back to the point of all of this—to keep her spirit alive. These songs provided a glimpse into Susan’s life before I knew her and were refreshing reminders of how funny and good at karaoke she was! I paired songs to colors and listen to them as I paint the wall at SFMOMA each day. Whether you knew Susan or not, whether you get to see these colors at the museum or not, no matter what happens next, you will have Songs for Susan to accompany you in your pursuit of getting better every day and efforts at daily routine(s). And always, Hot Pink.