ORINDA -- Imagine a world where nations one-up each other with acts of colossal compassion -- and horses made of kiln-fired clay gaze with soulful eyes and turn their noses to the sky.
It's not a dream, but rather a description of Oakland sculptor Amy Evans McClure's contribution to Orinda's Public Art Program.
Planted alongside and in front of the Orinda Public Library's entrance, "Imagine," "Ardennais Stallion" and "Ardennais Appaloosa" will be on display until November.
At no cost to the city and approved by the City Council, the Art in Public Places Committee receives applications and makes recommendations for the city's ambitious public art installations. Michelle Lacy, Orinda's director of parks and recreation, said support for the program has been positive.
"Residents enjoy the rotation of art in the downtown area," she said. "The expansion of the program to include the South side of Orinda has been met with rave reviews from residents and visitors."
Art in Public Places Chairwoman Rebecca Dahlberg recommended McClure, whose works are held in private collections and publicly at the University of California, Berkeley's Bancroft Library and the San Francisco Zen Center. A graduate of the California College of the Arts, McClure has drawn interest and accolades from curators and critics alike for her sculptures. Michael Duncan, an editor with Art in America, writes in an essay to the art book, "Amy Evans McClure: In Space in Situ," that her works "offer spiritual succor" and "open unexpected windows and let in the light."
Dahlberg was instantly attracted to the horse sculptures. "Because of the art and equestrian communities here, my hunch was that they would be well received," she wrote in an email.
McClure likens sculpting to three-dimensional doodling. During an interview, her scrawls and squiggles fill a sketchpad, as if channeling the clatter of the world onto paper. A quote she's adopted, from modernist painter Phillip Guston, who attributed it to artist John Cage, is key to her reductionist inclinations.
"When I go into the studio, I take everyone with me," she paraphrases, "If I stay there long enough, they all leave. I know the work is successful when I have left."
The act of creating art out of clay allows physical gesture to muffle what McClure calls "the monkey mind, the small ego eye that wants to make something pretty, something people will like." In the studio behind the home she shares with her husband and Beat Generation poet Michael McClure, serendipity reigns. McClure creates works whose inside hollowness -- the "empty" spaces -- are as resonant as their exteriors. Often, this involves accidents.
A series of "canvases" -- a dull, gray, chalky clay -- enter the kiln with no indication of the bursts of fiery browns or purpled blues that emerge hours later. "The surprise element, the mysterious part of art-making, keeps my attention and interest," she says. Inspiration comes from memories -- one of them, a childhood visit to New York City's Museum of Modern Art, where dimly lit Mark Rothcos and Louise Nevelson's 30-foot-high, black assemblage boxes were a lightning rod, a sacred sighting. Later, the work of Greek sculptor Peter Voulkos unleashed her work's connections to Egyptian mythology, Mayan sculpture, Eastern, Indian and African culture.
"He gave us permission to make art, not a pot. He liberated us, really," she says.
McClure was working on "Imagine" in late August 2001. When the World Trade Center towers came down that Sept. 11, she said everything stopped.
"It was the quietest day in America," she recalls. "Imagine was three-quarters her final height. I was wondering, if we would send bombs. Of course, we did. I couldn't talk about it, but I thought, let's make a prayer, a form for peace. Let's experience grief fully and let go of it."
McClure folded the sculpture's serpentine apex in a gesture of supplication and drew its title from the Diane di Prima poem "Rant," in which "men die everyday for the lack of" imagination.
The horse sculptures, she said, were originally intended to have upper bodies. Instead, the necks elongated, capturing her imagination and perhaps stretching in response to real whinnies and snorts she heard from her neighbors' nearby stables. "There's graciousness and beauty to a creature that can fly through the air and work with us in ways that are astounding," McClure says. "It's not whether or not it looks like a horse: does it feel like a horse?"
Standing next to the dappled, textured pair, whose lineage reaches back to ancient Rome, it's not so much "does it feel like a horse;" it's how wonderful it is to be human, living with public art.