Since the COVID-19 pandemic began I have been culling my lived experiences for ways to connect to strangers. Practicing social distancing, my part time jobs shuttered or cancelled, sheltering in place, and the necessity of confronting financial precariousness has provoked me into active reminiscing, and reflecting on the places I have lived and how each place affected my sense of stability. Perhaps I am simply missing places and people more acutely now that I do not have access to them. Although I certainly wish to see family and friends in person again, phone and video calls allow me to connect with them meaningfully. What I realized is strikingly absent, is the opportunity for me to be a stranger to someone. My effort to recover (or replenish?) these encounters is called Current Occupant. The project begins with hand drawing my memory of each residence I have lived in. This image and a letter was then sent to the current occupant of each address, a complete stranger to me. The endeavor is an offering, an autobiography, a memory palace, and an ode to that which exists only in memories.
Each original drawing is 6 x 8 inches, ink on bristol.
A handmade artists book of this project is available here.
Click on each image to read more about each residence.
Dear Current Occupant of ***** Calcot Place #213, I really liked living here and used the huge walls to test my skills doing mural sized drawings and to hang big reference photographs up for the projects I was working on. One entire wall of this studio was windows and on the Fourth of July we could look out them and see fireworks all over East Oakland. I once found a hundred bucks when I was walking over the train overpass to catch the bus to Berkeley. The rent went up every year by $100. This building is very close to Alameda which is where I ended up doing a lot of grocery shopping and studying in the Alameda Free Library. The Ghost Ship burned in the last months we lived here and we would see remnants of that site and memorials to all that was lost. It was sad to leave Oakland, I had lived there for 10 years. It’s the town I have lived longest as an adult. I hope you can utilizing the space of this residence during these stay at home days. It’s highly likely you have a good project going…. Sincerely, Michelle Ott
Dear Current Occupant of ### Peralta Street, There was a wood shop, seven pianos, Sunday dinners, a cupcake and meatball machine, a bunch of bikes, huge pallet racks, paintings being made, instruments being worked on, music played, a roll up door, a cement factory across the street, my 30th birthday party on my 31st birthday, three refrigerators, several common areas, many private rooms, and between 7-10 people living here at any given time during the period I made this my home. Pictured here are only the rooms within that sean and I inhabited. I am uncertain this address even exists anymore, since many units of the warehouses in this historic building were gutted and redistributed after everyone was evicted. We implemented a New Years tradition where we run around the house at midnight with our suitcases to attract more travel in the coming year. We had to run around the entire block, because the building is basically and huge city block. I hope that the cement factory is not running so that you may have some peace during these shelter in place days . Sincerely, Michelle Ott
Dear Current Occupant of **** Bergen Street #2, I lived at your address in 2001 and took the train to Coney Island before work so that I could see the ocean on my birthday . I’ve wondered a lot what it would be like to be inside this apartment during these pandemic days . I’m sending you this drawing of my memory of the space and my wishes for your good health and perhaps a small delight. Sincerely, Michelle Ott
Dear Current Occupant of **** 17th street #25, This apartment was on the fifth floor and the building was right next to an on ramp for the BQE. I always wondered why I didn’t see more people coming and going from the building when I was leaving or arriving . Did we all keep to ourselves so much? Is it still the same now? In the previous apartment I lived in I had video taped myself knitting an entire orange sweater , and in this apartment I imagined the 11 DV tapes playing on repeat on a TV screen somewhere. I can’t find the tapes and I think I will someday repeat this project now. There was an amazing show on public access tv called The Spew and I think if there had been YouTube then, the two women who made The Spew would have become celebrities .(think precursor to Broad City). Sincerely, Michelle Ott
Dear Current Occupant of **** 24th Street #2, Your current residence was the third of five apartments I lived in during the years I lived in New York. We painted the bathroom bright yellow and used the room on the street side closest to the kitchen as an office/studio. I worked for Milton Glaser when I lived here and have been thinking about that period of time since I heard word that he passed away. It seemed like he would always exist. I wrote a lot of letters and postcards and would leave them at the top of the stairs to take with me on my way out the door. I remember feeling afraid in March of that year, which was the month that the US went to war in Iraq. There was a Dunkin’ Donuts basically across the street I liked to go there on Fridays. Sincerely, Michelle Ott
Dear Current Occupant of **** Hatch Terrace, 3rd Floor, I lived here with two roommates and one sweet dog during a very challenging period of time for me . On my days off I remember walking on a nature path that was close by and I remember frequently missing the train at Grand Central after work, which caused me to spend many hours waiting in that station in the evenings. It was a short, dense period of time. I was unhappy in my job and couldn’t figure out how to change and experienced a kind of anxiety that was unfamiliar to me thus far. I purchased an alarm clock that would play cds so that I could wake up to music I chose each morning. Frequently it was a classical or a Beck album , I can’t remember the title of either, but sometimes I hear songs from those albums and remember the room I slept in here. The bathtub was amazing in this attic apartment, I hope it offers you comfort during these pandemic days. Sincerely, Michelle Ott
Dear Current Occupant of *•*•* West 109th Street #2B, In my memory of it, a book about rats in NYC came out the year that I lived at your current address. The book claimed that the most rat infested block in New York was a stretch of 110th street, the backside of which I estimated to be this block of 109th street! While I lived here it was wonderful to train for a marathon by running in Central Park and my commute to work in Chelsea was the shortest train ride of any of my years in NY. Walking in this neighborhood at night made me feel so glad to be in NYC. There were a few sad walks, walks with tears. When I left this apartment to go work in Antarctica I didn’t know I wouldn’t come back to it. Even though I left with an inarticulate feeling of uncertainty, I knew that nothing would be the same. Here’s a drawing of my memory of the space you currently inhabit. I hope you are there, staying strong through these pandemic days. Sincerely, Michelle Ott
Dear Current Occupant of **** Steele Street, It was only a few months during the summer of 2005 that I lived in the basement of this house. A few Reed college students lived upstairs and there was a trampoline in the very lush and green backyard. We went to the public library a lot to use the internet and check out books . I would go to the darkroom as often as I could afford it and print pictures from Antarctica. I sewed hooded polar fleece sweatshirts for Sean and I in this basement, mine is orange his is brown with spots. I wonder if you have a whole lot of people in the house or if you just have a few during these quarantining days. We thought the space behind the fireplace in the basement was creepy. Sincerely, Michelle Ott
Dear Current Occupant at **** SE 17th Ave. #2, I previously lived in the apartment you currently occupy and once I accidentally locked myself out when I stepped out to go buy toilet paper. I worked across town in NW Portland and would ride across the bridges to bake and sell cake. My favorite rides home were on Saturday nights in the summertime the air would be hot and the motion of biking would feel cool. I frequently ate oatmeal for breakfast while sitting in the backyard. Sometimes we would rent movies from Movie Madness and watch them in the extra bedroom. It was a short time that I lived here, only six months, so it feels like I spent a summer vacation here. Sometimes I am surprised I haven’t lived in Portland again since. Sincerely, Michelle Ott .
Dear Current Occupant of **** Shattuck Ave #A, After the 2006-2007 summer season at McMurdo I lived into this apartment and lived in a room that had a curved area of windows that made it feel like a turret. I would walk down Telegraph Ave to MacArthur BART to tide the train to a boring job at an architecture office in San Francisco. My grandma died and I went to Minnesota for several trips during that year. I struggled to sleep in my grief for months. I was in MN on my birthday and I turned 30 the same day that a freeway bridge over the Mississippi collapsed in Minneapolis. The washing machine for this apartment was outside ! It seemed fitting for the first place I lived in California. Sometimes Sean would make pizza by picking up premade dough at Lanesplitter around the corner . And people would tell stories about seeing metal shows at the OMNI which was across the street . Sincerely, Michelle Ott .
Dear Current Occupant of five dorm rooms at McMurdo Station, Oh how many stories have filled the rooms at that remote geographic location you are now inhabiting! I was 23 the first time I went to Antarctica and I learned how to bake round cookies for 1000 people and washed enough dishes to learn the phrase “repetitive strain injury”. Although the last time I breathed that cold dry ice air was 2007, I still remember arriving at McMurdo for the first time and falling exhausted on the bed of my little dorm room and feeling so light I wondered if gravity worked the same in Antarctica. (It does, as you well know.) I shall be forever enamored of Long Duration Balloons and the slowness of their all-day-long “launch”. I hope you are weathering the winter well, we are taking note that Antarctica is the only continent with no Covid-19 cases and I wish for you that the bubble stays sealed forever. Or that you find a job in New Zealand and can bask in their glorious woods and cities for a year or two ! I hope you see meteor showers and auroras every day of your long night . Sincerely, Michelle Ott
Dear Current Occupant of •*•* Clinton Avenue So. #F22, I moved into the apartment you currently inhabit on my 21st birthday in 1998. Since my birthday is on the first of the month, it’s usually a rent day. I went to school around the corner and sometimes when I stayed late in the cold winter the security guard would drop me off at my front door because their route had them driving around the block anyway. I biked between a few jobs and school and liked the storage cage in the basement where I could keep my bike indoors. This was a comfortable apartment while I lived there and I hope that the courtyard is still lush and green and a nice place for a picnic. Sincerely, Michelle Ott
Dear Current Occupant of *** Rue de Vaugirard, I arrived in Paris a few months after Princess Diana died in a car accident. I walked everywhere all the time, taking trains only on special occasions or to travel to the edges of the city to go to the woods to take pictures with Ardina. At first it was winter and I would read using candlelight because I thought it was cheaper than having the lights on. I was surprised that school wasn’t open all the time so I would spend entire weekend days walking around the city using a small book of maps to navigate. I was practicing bookbinding a lot then and purchased an OLFA knife at the office supply store that I still use in my studio, 22 years later. It has been a life long tool and a precious companion-for-making. I loaned the book of maps to someone who went to Paris the following year and still haven’t gotten it back. I hope this 2020 note finds you in good health and that you find as much comfort and joy in those streets today. Sincerely, Michelle Ott
Dear Current Occupant of **** Girard Ave. So. #2, Your current residence was the first apartment I lived in that had wood floors. My roommates and I also had access to the entire beautiful and haunted attic, where I would go early in the morning to take pictures for my art school classes. I worked at the Lagoon Cinema in uptown and one winter night after a quick and deep snowfall I walked home down the middle of the remarkably empty streets and admired the warm glowing spots the streetlights made on the perfect snow path . Once when driving home from the darkroom at school in the middle of the night Gretchen and I were pulled over by the police. It was so cold out we both had our hoods up and the officer was clearly shocked to me our white female faces when he shined his light through the window. I’ve been sending drawings like this of my memory of places I have formerly lived to each of the current occupant at these addresses . They remind me of memory palaces. Hopefully you can enjoy it as a small delight from a stranger during these pandemic days. Sincerely, Michelle Ott
Dear Current Occupant of Centennial Hall at the University of MN, I once lived in this room, enclosed you’ll find a drawing of my memory of it . I’ve missed being a stranger to people during these stay-at-home-pandemic-times . So I decided to write to the current occupant of each of my past residences and include a drawing of my memory of the space I formerly inhabited, where you currently reside . I hope this letter brings you a small delight and finds you in good health . Sincerely, Michelle Ott
Dear Current Occupant of *#•* N. 33rd Avenue, I have yet to live at another address as long as I lived in your current residence. It’s the first house my mom purchased and we drank carbonated grape juice in the basement to celebrate . I always had my own bedroom and I could walk to every school I attended (there were three). I didn’t sleep well sometimes and spent many late nights watching the Arsenio Hall show and playing solitaire with a deck of cards . Once I was old enough to work at jobs I would come home from making sandwiches and stay up late reading the books the college kids at work loaned me . Nothing radical, but I did start to feel like reading was an extra credit activity which was more fun than tv. Best wishes, Michelle Ott
Dear Current Occupant of *** Killian Blvd., When I was 7-8 I lived at this address and am sending your this drawing of my memory of the inside of the house . One day I was on the path from the driveway to the house and was crouching to put on my pink hooded sweatshirt (that my aunt had knitted for me) and I knocked my front teeth out on my knee. I also learned how to make kraft macaroni and cheese from the box in this house and once grabbed a rogue noodle with a paper towel and it lit on fire because it was a gas stove which was a valuable lesson to learn . Sincerely, Michelle Ott
Dear Current Occupant of **#* Jackson Street, We rented this house the year the Camp Fire burned Paradise and the next year we purchased it . I find it continually insulting that the junk mail from realtors, mortgage company, and other home-buying agencies comes addressed directly to Sean despite the fact that we jointly own the house . The yard has plants that bloom year round and have magical proprieties. I am convinced someone planted them all intentionally and I hope to be a good steward of the trees and plants here, all of which have been a source of comfort and grounding since the pandemic started. Sincerely, Michelle Ott
Each address was sent a brief letter explaining the project as well as an illustrated image of my memory of the address.
Current Occupant, 2020
Email me directly at:
workofott (at) gmail.com
Michelle Ott makes illustrations and hand-cut photographs focusing on observations of our physical and social world. Her work has been shown nationally and internationally most recently at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Berkeley Art Museum, and the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Her illustrations have appeared in the New York Times T Magazine online and are featured throughout The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee (2012) and Candy Is Magic (2017) both published by Ten Speed Press. Ott has given visiting artist lectures at both UC Berkeley and Stanford University and has recently taught in the Art Practice department at Berkeley. Michelle is the recipient of several awards including a residency at the Atlantic Center for the Arts (2013), an exhibition and grant from The Institute for the Future (2014), a travel grant and exhibition at the College Art Association Conference (2015), and the Eisner Prize in Art Practice with a post-graduate fellowship residency from UC Berkeley (2015). For her service over four summer seasons at McMurdo Station in Antarctica Michelle has received the Antarctica Service Medal. She holds a BFA from the Minneapolis College of Art and Design and an MFA from the University of California, Berkeley. Michelle works at The Bookstore and is currently the Artist in Residence at the Gateway Science Museum in Chico, California
Video by Felix Jung
The Postcard Machine (Possibly from the Future) was first constructed in 2006 out of a giant cardboard box at McMurdo Station Antarctica, for the annual McMurdo Craft Fair. It is now made from marine canvas and has traveled between both coasts in the US, most recently at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts where visitors were invited to spin the dial to receive a postcard, or create postcards of their own:
It is a vending machine, a social experiment, and an art project. I sometimes consider it my sketchbook. Postcards are frequently screenprinted on discarded paper backed with cardstock from my household recyclables. Here are some samples of postcards:
Words of Wisdom
San Francisco Postcard
Words of Wisdom
My Drawing Table Postcard
Long Lines to exit Burning Man in 2006 Postcard
Tecate and Cigarettes Postcard
Postcard from The Postcard Machine
List of Postcard Machine Appearances:
McMurdo Alternative Art Gallery, Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Renegade Craft Fair (San Francisco, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles), North Beach Art Walk (SF), Beyond Eden Art Fair (LA), Maker Faire (San Mateo, CA), Chikoko Bizarre Bazaar (Chico, CA), Manifesto Gallery (SF), Oakland First Friday 2007, American Craft Council Show (SF), Handmade Nation (the movie), on the street in Jack Kerouac Alley (SF), Powell’s Books (As Candy Machine), Heath Ceramics (As Candy Machine) (SF), Treasure Island Music Festival, University of California – Berkeley.
Installations variable. Includes Graphite on Wall, Handcut Archival Inkjet Prints, Graphite on Paper. 2004-ongoing
Between 1999 and 2007 I spent four summer seasons working as support staff at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. This project is an ongoing negotiation of my participation and observation of human intervention in the ice landscape, and includes photographs (sometimes with handcut surfaces) and drawings.
Installation view at Embark Gallery, 2015
Installation View at Embark Gallery, 2015
From the series Antarctica With/Without
Ink and Colored Pencil on Paper, 2015
I had the special privilege to illustrate and hand letter a passage from Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time in honor of the book which was read nightly, aloud, throughout a pregnancy in preparation for a daughter to be born. A beautiful girl she is!
Riffing on the linden blossom tea and the time of year (nearing July) I made a fireworks display of linden leaves and blossoms to loosely frame an oval of text.
Paper, Thread. 2015
In 2014 I performed the Postcard Machine (Possibly from the Future) at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts during their Open City/Art City Symposium. I brought 500 postcards, plus enough materials for visitors to make their own postcards envisioning their future cities. After preparing the postcards and materials for the gig, I was left with this lovely pile of scraps. They awaited processing patiently on the studio floor until a frenzied week of weaving and sewing ensued. Bibliography at the time: Waste and Want, A Social History of Trash, Susan Strasser.
Pile of scraps from postcard making
I started working in the office at Blue Bottle in 2007 and over the course of seven years wore many hats: Office Manager, Bookkeeper, Production Artist. During my time there my illustrations were used throughout the company: in-house events, point of sale signage, retail merchandise, a coloring book and in 2012 in The Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee (published by Ten Speed Press.) Although I’m not a fixture in the office anymore, I still do illustration for Blue Bottle Coffee. Here are some examples of the work. More on view throughout bluebottlecoffee.com too!
Photo from @bluebottleny
Holiday card for Blue Bottle Coffee
Holiday card for Blue Bottle Coffee
Dog Treats for Blue Bottle
Signage for Blue Bottle
New Orleans Iced Coffee carton for Blue Bottle Coffee
Aoyama Cafe for Blue Bottle Japan
Special Postcard for Blue Bottle Coffee Williamsburg Roastery and cafe
Illustrations used for Blue Bottle Coffee packaging
Hand Lettering on coffee cards for Blue Bottle Coffee
Coffea Arabica plant drawing for inside coffee shipment boxes
Title page from Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee, Published by Ten Speed Press
My favorite illustration for Blue Bottle Craft of Coffee , Published by Ten Speed Press
Title illustration for short film by Brandon Loper.
Description from Vimeo: Unwieldy Beast tells the story of Gary Frank Skaggs and his unique piano, which happens to be set atop a three-wheeled bicycle. St. Frankenstein, as it is so aptly named, is a rare combination of bicycle wheels and piano strings and was literally resurrected by Skaggs and given a new life as an unwieldy beast roaming through San Francisco. The film features all original music from Skaggs, as he pedals ever so slowly, in and out of tune, through the streets of San Francisco.
Watch the movie here.
In 2005 I traveled from Portland, Oregon down the west coast to Los Angeles, CA before embarking on my third season in Antarctica. I had with me a set of 100 numbered postcards I had collected or made, which were stamped and addressed to myself, that I then left along the way. Postcards were left in public and private spaces. I received 19 of the postcards, with varied notes. My favorite response the one which outlines “The Five Fallacies about Life”
A postcard from a stranger (Postcard Project #1)