Two slices of bread. One generous dollop of peanut butter smeared across each. A slathering of jelly. Press the bread together, and seal.
Last week, multimedia artist Jessica Olah performed that process 2,340 times over five days as part of a performance-art piece at Specials on C in NYC’s Alphabet City. Her ambition? To recognize her mother, who every morning, from the time Olah was in kindergarten through 12th grade, lovingly crafted a peanut butter and jelly sandwich for school lunch. Over those 13 years, Olah estimated her mom made 2,340 sandwiches.
“There is often a repetitive nature to the tasks that a mother performs during the early years of her children’s lives, and a lack of value given to the person doing them,” Olah said on her website prior to starting the project. “I hope to cultivate a sense of empathy for my mother through the act of making these sandwiches, and to create a tribute to her dedication.”
To meet her goal, Olah had to make more than 400 sandwiches a day. Her workspace sat in the center of the studio with chairs in a half circle around her. Most chairs were empty for much of the day, giving Olah time to reflect on the unseen and often-unappreciated role mothers have. “Mothers go through such effort to take loving care of their kids each day, but no one is watching them,” she told BUST.
She also noted how keeping a strict eight-hour daily schedule at the gallery and taking off time from her receptionist job to complete the project is a way of demonstrating that raising children is, in fact, a job—one mothers aren’t paid for.
Decorating the space were framed excerpts from a photo essay on how to make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich created by her mother, professional photographer Elizabeth Olah, in 1989.
The mix of Wonderbread, processed nut butter, and sugary jelly may be an American staple, but Olah decided to break tradition and “save the sandwich” by elevating it. All of her creations were made with preservative-free ingredients from New York–based companies: The grape jam hailed from Beth’s Farm Kitchen; the peanut butter from Once Again; and the freshly baked bread was delivered each morning from Hot Bread Kitchen.
During her first two days, she also perfected her technique—taking care to cover each slice of bread with peanut butter before adding the jelly in the middle, a detail she claims keeps the jelly from leaking through the bread. “I ate a lot of soggy sandwiches in my day,” Olah says.
Quality is important because at the end of each day, Olah donated the sandwiches to the Bowery Mission, which serves New York City’s homeless population.
She believes she and her audience took something away from the process, too.
“I hope [this project brings] a similar appreciation to those who view the work, and perhaps cause them to give thought to what they can thank their mothers for,” she says.
See Olah explain her project in a video she created for IndieGoGo, through which she raised funds for the exhibition:
Be there: Olah’s next show, Desserted, on February 9 will showcase paintings of people enjoying decadent sweets together and explore the social and emotional connections people have with dessert. Get more information here.
More from BUST
Liz Donovan lives in Brooklyn and works as a magazine editor and writer.