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AgArts Artist Feature

Michael O’Malley: The Making & Breaking of Bread at the Mobile Hearth

AgArts is pleased to introduce our “Artist Feature,” an opportunity to regularly highlight artists whose work explore the integration and intersections of art, agricultural and the agrarian, as well as community action and activism. Our first feature is the work of California- based artist, Michael O’Malley – a hybrid of sculpture, performance, community action and “sustainable art practice,” as the artist himself describes the work. This first artist feature initiates what we envision as a vital part of the mission of the AgArts organization: to imagine and promote healthy food systems through the arts.

We invite your suggestions for artists and topics for this feature, so that we may continue to be informed of the ever-growing community of artists whose work is informed by agriculture and agricultural practice as art. Our series will focus on the full spectrum of the arts: performing arts, literature, visual arts, film and digital art as well as activism, social engagement and creative community events and entertainment in which art, agriculture and food converge to support and envision sustainability and healthful transformation.

Michael O’Malley’s Mobile Oven (“MOMO” in short) is an integrative project drawing together his passion for bread baking, his interests as a sculptor in the built environment and “empathetic design” and a celebration of the oven as a hearth-center of community life. Traveling from place to place with the oven he designed and accommodated to a trailer, O’Malley organizes bread-baking events in urban, educational, arts and other settings where communities can partake in the process of bread baking, culminating in the sharing of the bread and food.

O’Malley perceives the act of baking itself as both practical and metaphoric. For him, baking reflects both earth-based values and the values of the baking site where people gather. The environments he constructs where the bread-baking ‘happenings’ are set are not just physical, but also familial, social, educational and cultural. The happenings draw diverse audiences that engage conversations about community and what the making and breaking of good bread symbolizes for people of all backgrounds. Among the varied locations where O’Malley’s bread baking events have taken place are the Walker Art Center in Minneapolis, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, the Delaware Center for Contemporary Art, Grist & Toll Millers, the Institute of Domestic Technology, as well as farmers markets, parks and other public spaces.

Food as performance art and social theater has been explored from the 1960’s to the present. Four decades ago, Allan Kaprow’s emphasis on the “blurring of art and life” re-imagined everyday activities such as cooking, eating, drinking and cleaning as art. His fundamental philosophy about “life-like” art that proclaimed daily actions and occupations as “art” has been profoundly influential over the years. In one of Kaprow’s “classic” works, “Eat” (1964), he invited guests into an old cave to share wine, bread, boiled potatoes, fritters and fruit that hung from the cave ceiling.

Of particular interest to O’Malley, was artist Gordon Matta-Clark (1943-1978), whose site-specific and experimental art also explored cooking and serving food as performance. O’Malley cites Clark’s New York Soho restaurant, founded in 1971 and simply named “Food, ” as an influence on his work. Lasting only 3 years in its original manifestation, “Food” was an eclectic gathering of artists, who served as guest chefs. The restaurant served adventurous food like their well-known “bone dinner.” After the meal, the bones were gathered up and made into wearable art objects.

Recently in a 2012 exhibition, the Museum of Modern Art recreated artist Rirkrit Tiravanija’s 1992 art installation, “Untitled (Free)” by transforming one of its spaces into a kitchen. Every afternoon from 12-3 PM, museum staff served Thai curry and rice, just as Tiravanija had done in a gallery 20 years earlier. The original work and the MoMA recreation, as well as Tiravanija’s other projects that present food as art, highlight the artist’s role in drawing people together in social and cultural engagement.

Michael O’Malley perceives his mobile bread oven project as similarly interactive. He describes it “as a sculptural, relational, gesture that combines the nomadic, “missionary” zeal of a Johnny Appleseed with the once civic relevance of public, community ovens. It shifts between being a theatrical performance centered around baking bread and promoting new narratives of living, to a mobile kitchen/classroom, to a local community oven.”

Sharing what characteristically takes place at a bread-baking event, O’Malley says, “It usually follows a couple of different formats. The first type is based on the historical tradition of a European community oven in which people from the area would bring dough to bake in an oven. There is a very vibrant meet-up group called the Los Angeles Bread Bakers. This social network galvanizes around all things ‘bread.’ I periodically bring the oven to miller, Nan Kohler, of Grist and Toll. Bakers of all levels show up for one of 3 or 4 time slots. Dough gets placed on the custom loader and then goes into the oven to bake. People hang out, catch up, share recipes and techniques and get advice on baking problems while the dough bakes.” The other type of bread baking event that O’Malley organizes involves a focused workshop, where participants learn all phases of the process, from the development of the dough to its final baking.

The journey for O’Malley began twelve years ago when an appreciation for the difference between excellent and mediocre bread grew more apparent. After a trip to Barcelona, Spain in 2004 to study the built environment of architect, Antoni Gaudi, O’Malley had a “liminal experience” with wood-fired pizza and from that point made the commitment to learn all he could about bread baking. He began by making a starter, baking every day, reading everything he could about bread and building a bread oven in his yard. Eventually O’Malley was constructing ovens for other people, including friends.

Nearly every week in 2005, O’Malley invited people over to have pizza and talk about art, food and culture. It was during that time that he began to marvel at the way in which the oven served as an important, but quiet physical object around which to stage conversations. Even as O’Malley continued working as a sculptor in the making of art objects, he found himself “wishing that the practice was as efficacious at generating conversation.” This reflection fueled his passion for bread baking further. His knowledge about bread, pizza and ovens deepened and eventually O’Malley was teaching workshops about pizza and bread making and how to construct temporary ovens, including five ovens in Catskills of New York.

A few years later, O’Malley had the opportunity to participate in a show at the Delaware Center for the Arts entitled “Cur(eat).” Curator, Maiza Hixon structured the show around gestures that engaged art and life through food. O’Malley used the gallery space to build a community oven, which was on display during the exhibition. Later, as part of “Cur(eat),” he transported the oven outside to bake bread for the community. O’Malley especially enjoyed the informal conversations with some of the children in the area. One particularly street smart kid about ten years old listened to him explain why bread might be deployed to talk about art and the choices we make about the kind of world we chose to live in. The child summed up O’Malley’s explanation by exclaiming, “You don’t make wonder bread, you make wonderful bread.”

Not only has O’Malley’s project involved the public and art communities, his engagement in food production has extended to the land and the farmer that grows the grain from which the bread is made. The rural environment and farms may be far afield from the urban streets where O’Malley temporarily sets up the oven, or the gallery receptions where his bread-making activities may be more readily defined as “art.”

However, realizing that the entire agricultural cycle is integral to the process, O’Malley became personally and physically invested in growing and harvesting the grain. He worked with an organic farmer friend, Richard Giles of Lucky Dog Farm in the Catskills, to plant 10 acres of winter wheat in the fall of 2011, resulting in a robust harvest of 500 bushels the following summer. For this endeavor, O’Malley purchased a multi-grain & seed Allis Chalmers All Crop Harvester that required considerable repair, setting out to not only educate himself about the cultivation of grain, but also the workings of the machinery required for its harvest. Over the years the “MOMO” project has been a “classroom” in which O’Malley himself participates as an enthusiastic student in interdisciplinary study.

In recent decades, the movement in art as social practice has been expanding in a myriad of expressions by working artists. Still, in modern western society, our collective perception of art is quite different from that of cultures and times when “art”, myth and ritual, often associated with seasonal and agricultural cycles, have been synchronically connected. We are not likely to ever return to ancient animistic beliefs and ways. We have bitten and consumed “the apple” of knowledge: scientific and intellectual enquiry and much of the earth’s population now lives in urban centers.

However, Michael O’Malley’s mobile bread oven as a creative venture integrating agriculture, sustainable farming, healthy food systems, community and art represents a new paradigm of interrelationship. Food will always be essential in the support of our bodies and biological life, and art to feed the human spirit. When food and art are sculpted together into a loaf of bread and shared among people, a rite as ancestral as the earliest cultivation of grain in the Fertile Crescent is celebrated.

Cherie Sampson is an environmental performance, media artist and dancer. She is an Associate Professor of Art at the University of Missouri and lives, when not teaching, on her husband’s organic farm, Blue Heron Orchard, in NE Missouri, where she creates many of her projects. Her current project, “Hands to Earth” incorporates the expressive language of classical Indian dance to illustrate labor in small-scale farming where the body is in close proximity to the land. Cherie recently became involved in the AgArts organization as a media coordinator.


BreadCulture.org website: http://breadculture.org/tag/michael-omalley/

Carlson. Marvin, Performance Art: A Critical Introduction, 2nd Ed. Rutledge, 2004.

Kaprow, Allan, and Kelley, Jeff, Essays on the Blurring of Art & Life, University of CA Press. 1983/84

Kennedy, Randy, “When Meals Played the Muse,” New York Times. 2007.

Museum of Modern Art website, “Rirkrit Tiravanija: Cooking Up an Art Experience.” http://www.moma.org/explore/inside_out/2012/02/03/rirkrit-tiravanija-cooking-up-an-art-experience

Michael O’Malley, offical artist website: http://momalley.org/category/m-o-m-o/

Cherie Sampson. Author’s notes from Michael O’Malley’s panel presentation: “Travel, Landscape and the New Frontiers in Sculpture”, New Frontiers in Sculpture, International Sculpture Center annual conference, Phoenix, AZ. November, 2015. And notes through correspondence with O’Malley.