By The Touch of a Hand

Tucked away under the shade of trees in a sequestered corner of Fashion Island, 100 pounds of clay wait for the touch of a hand to shape and squeeze and startle.

The clay lies neatly divided on a group of pedestals attached to a movable white wall in the lobby of the Orange County Art Museum (OCMA) and is one of their recurring exhibits entitled “100 Pounds of Clay,” by artist Charles Long. The exhibit will stay at the museum until Sept. 19, when Long will recycle the clay into a new piece.

A world of color unfolds behind the museum’s drab brown walls. On their individual platforms, the clay blends a thousand times over: red, green, brown, purple, blue and yellow cease to be separate, mixing into a single entity as each person leaves their mark.

The exhibit also features two worktables with buckets of plastic sculpting tools, Christmas cookie cutters and stencils to help visitors shape their clay.

“Usually we get parents that come in with their kids,” said Doris Dialogu from the Visitor Services department, “but the exhibit is open to everybody. It’s completely interactive.”

The exhibit has appeared twice before at OCMA in 2001 and 2006, and has consistently proven to be one of the more popular featured at the museum. In spite of its humble beginnings as 100 one pound blocks of Play-Doh, the visitors have transformed it into a piece of extraordinary brilliance.

The shapes and sizes of the sculptures range from large, flowing streams of multicolored ribbons, simple blobs, stick figures and animals, to the blindingly surreal.

On one piece, one of the few with a title, a blue, purple and pink stereo stands in front of a blue skull and blue man. The skull has a vine, starkly green, growing out of a hole at the top, and red veins flow down its right side. The blue man has no face. He reaches into the skull’s eye socket, his right arm buried to the hilt. The title — “Ink!”

In a startling violation of the conventional art rule, “look but do not touch,” “100 Pounds of Clay” is constantly being destroyed and remade. What stands on any particular pedestal is subject to change, taking on new depth and vision with each hand that shapes it.

“People will come and ask where to get more clay, and I’ll tell them to get it off the shelves,” Dialogu said. “And they’ll say, ‘but isn’t that destruction of someone else’s work?’ No. It isn’t.”

In his efforts to reshape our perceptions of art, Charles Long has created something special. He has added a little fun to this museum and knocked the high horse out from art.

“I’ve worked here for three years and I’ve never had so many people come from so far away just to see one exhibit,” Dialogu said. “One family came in. There were something like 10 of them. They spent an hour and a half and did the entire top row.”

Born in 1958, Charles Long lives in Los Angeles, and is a faculty member of the UC Riverside Department of Art. His work is featured in museums and art galleries around the world, and explores new possibilities in both the conception of art as an entity and the materials traditionally used in sculptures. Long has worked with materials as diverse as clay, coffee grounds and even strands of Abraham Lincoln’s hair.

“Museums can be the most boring places in the world,” Dialogu said, “but they shouldn’t be. They’re educational spaces too. What we’ve done here is set up a situation where visitors can create their own space. Anyone can come in and have something of their own up on a museum wall.”

Along with the clay sculptures themselves, “100 Pounds of Clay” features its own playlist. Visitors are free to choose from a list of one hundred CD’s submitted by OCMA staff and volunteers. The playlist features an eclectic mix of musicians ranging from Jack Johnson to Iron and Wine to The Clash. At 4:30 p.m. on Wednesday, May 26, Bob Dylan’s thin voice flowed from the speakers. He sings — “Don’t think twice, it’s alright.”

And with art like this, it’s a line  that’s easy enough to believe.