The faces gaze up from flower beds, stare out from the underbrush, nestle against rocks, sit under trees. They come in various colors and shapes. Some look serene, others sad or proud or pained.
The expressive clay sculptures, created by the late artist Susan O’Hara, are part of an outdoor exhibit in Emerson Brook Forest in Gilsum. It has two more showings in September.
The curator is Valerie Piedmont of Gilsum, who has a family connection to the artist. She estimates she has collected more than 200 of O’Hara’s works.
“When you’re around this art, it has the capacity to make you transcend everything else,” she said. The soulful works, she added, create “primal” responses in people.
The outdoors can have a similar effect on people, she said. “In nature, we’re more human.”
The Sustainability Project, a nonprofit Piedmont founded, owns the land on Emerson Brook Drive where many of the works are being shown, the Emerson Brook Forest Outdoor Learning Center. More of O’Hara’s sculptures are arranged outside Piedmont’s house nearby, which visitors can also view.
O’Hara and her family, who were Jewish, fled Belgium in 1939, landing in the U.S. after the world war, according to her husband, Joseph O’Hara. The family settled in Manhattan, and she got into art at a young age.
As an adult, she sculpted when she had time, while working and raising three boys, according to Joseph O’Hara. It was after her retirement in 2000 that she really “flourished,” he said.
“From then on, it was full-time sculpting,” he said. “She’d get up in the morning, have coffee, go to work. Come out for lunch, and then probably quit around 5 o’clock.”
He said her ideas came to her as the clay took shape, with the results usually reflecting her own mood at the time.
Her earlier work was more realistic, he said, but her sculptures grew more abstract later. In addition to clay, she worked in alabaster and wire sculpture.
O’Hara, who died in 2015 and lived most recently in Florida, called her style “primitive modern.”
“It amazes me to see how the female torso can be transformed in so many different ways, depending on the way I build the clay,” she wrote in an artist statement on her website. “Faces are also of great interest to me — faces of serenity, sadness, contemplation and experience — depending upon my mood at the time of creation.”
According to Piedmont and Joseph O’Hara, her influences included African art, Pablo Picasso and the English sculptor Henry Moore.
A range of styles are on display in the exhibit, which starts in a garden before following a wheelchair-accessible path into the woods.
One reddish-black sculpture is shaped like a Roman bust. Others, as Piedmont noted, have the tall, solemn bearing of Easter Island’s stone heads. Many are round, simple faces that carry depths of emotion. One face, colored with streaks of turquoise and orange and brown, looks half-melted, its mouth open in shock. Piedmont said it reminds her of Picasso’s chaotic Guernica painting. Other works are more abstract, twisting forms.
In their earthy colors and curving shapes, they looked at home amid the trees and rocks — “the spirits in the woods,” one visitor called them.
Piedmont remarked on the interplay between landscape and sculptures. She noted, for instance, the “synergy” between the colors of the shocked face and the speckled hunk of granite it rested on.
The exhibit is only on select weekends; Piedmont takes the sculptures indoors between those times, so they aren’t continuously exposed to the elements. Ultimately, she said, she plans to build a structure in the forest, where the sculptures can live permanently and be viewed. She also hopes to loan them out to museums.
“Each piece deserves its own attention,” she said.
Clay Heads by Susan O’Hara is open Sept. 17-19 and Sept. 24-26. Tickets are $18 and must be purchased in advance by visiting emersonbrookforest.org/events or by phone at 603-209-7272; capacity is limited to 40 per two-hour showing. (No one is turned away for lack of funds.) Some sculptures are also on display at Green Energy Options in Keene.