Story by Maureen Clark
Internationally renowned sculptor Patrick Dougherty travels the world to create his magical, swirling, stick-work structures. But once a month, he circles back to a house in the woods outside Chapel Hill that is a durable version of his art incorporating the texture, pattern and soul of trees. Tall and boyish with a shock of white hair, Dougherty enjoys the company of his son Sam, the comfort of a home he built at the start of his career, and talking for a while about his work.
The stick work forms created by Dougherty speak to the imagination of childhood in the viewer. Some are swirls of saplings winding up an indoor staircase. Others seem like inhabitable huts gathered under a grove of trees. Another clutch of branches clings to the side of a building. One weaves through a row of classic Doric columns. “There is a certain amount of magic,” the sculptor observes, “that occurs in the process of creating (the works). People make lots of personal associations. They talk about bird’s nests, or when they played in the woods. I heard one woman say to her husband, “‘Honey, we could live there.’” A friend’s reaction to a photograph of Na Hale “Eo Waiawi” created for The Contemporary Museum in Honolulu was an enthusiastic, “I know what that is. That is where the wild things live.”
Dougherty grew up in Southern Pines and credits a childhood spent in the pines as inspiration for his art. “It is very clear that growing up in Southern Pines made it easier to have vision and be part of a world of ideas. We lived on Grove Road near the Pine Needles golf course. I don’t know if it is still there, but I had a favorite little hollow in the woods. That was when there was a different approach to childhood play. We would go outside and not come back until dinner. We climbed trees and messed with things. Kids see sticks and know how to use them. We built forts on the pine needle carpets of the woods. That was a real baseline for me as I look for a way to express what beauty is in a certain way.”
Dougherty’s sister, Kate Farrell, a writer and poet, also remembers a childhood spent in the woods, in an essay written about her brother published in the British magazine Resurgence:
“Patrick Dougherty often remarks that his trek toward art began in the pine woods around his childhood home in Southern Pines, North Carolina. I know it’s so because, as his sister, I was there. Patrick, the eldest of five and a born outdoorsman, led the rest of us on countless forest expeditions. Even back then he brought to his wanderings a love of nature and a knack for “‘dwelling in possibility’” – an aptitude that would prove as useful for creating art as for exploring a forest — and his urge to build left a long trail of forts, tree houses, lean-tos, and hideouts. Later on he would build the mystery and freedom of the woods into these outsized, nestlike structures he is now known for.” Farrell calls them dream shelters.
After graduating from East Southern Pines High School in the early sixties, Dougherty went on to Chapel Hill and afterward earned a graduate degree in hospital and health administration from the University of Iowa. During the Vietnam War he worked as a hospital administrator at an Air Force base in Germany. After the war, he returned to Chapel Hill to study sculpture and begin building his house in the woods. Farrell, again, quotes her brother’s moment of “stick conversion.”
“I saw waves of saplings along my drive and thought, ‘I could use these.’ Plentiful and renewable, they were just what I needed. But I first had to learn what birds and beavers and other natural shelter builders knew already: sticks have an inherent method of joining. Drag one through the woods to see what I mean; it entangles with everything.”
At the time Dougherty recalls, “I was a no account student. We had a student show and I had to come up with something.” He produced his first piece: “A sort of body wrap made out of maple saplings. It was very lacy, about human sized, like an open-ended mummy.” The entry caught the attention of the show’s juror from Los Angeles. He considered it the “best piece he had seen all year.” A representative of SECCA, the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, was also enthusiastic about the work. He offered to give Dougherty a show.
“I told him I didn’t have any other work,” Dougherty remembers. He was informed that he had three months and was pressed to come up with something. “I made some figurative pieces that sat in chairs. But after that, I started going large.” Next, Dougherty was given a stipend by the North Carolina Arts Council to do a show in Salisbury. He has not looked back. Today there are 238 works that Dougherty has created in museums, parks, woodlands and buildings throughout the United States and around the world. Denmark, Italy, Ireland, Austria, Scotland, Mexico and Japan are among the hosts. Dougherty is traveling to Korea and Belgrade, Serbia, this year. He is booked through 2014. “I have been gone three weeks a month for almost 30 years,” the artist explained. He creates eight to ten works a year for which he is paid $20-30,000 apiece depending on the travel and location.
Over the years, Dougherty has developed a process. He learned that it wasn’t necessary to transport materials. He relies on being able to locate saplings in every geographic area. Standing in his studio examining a row of leather work gloves clipped to a line, he explained the participatory process. Each glove is covered with signatures of the workers who helped on a particular piece. He cannot work alone and requires assistants in each location, many of whom volunteer.
A planned preliminary visit to the site for each sculpture allows Dougherty an opportunity to locate the source of saplings for gathering, order scaffolding and begin to envision the work. He makes sketches. A key to the process links to the skills he developed in hospital administration. “I am organized,” Dougherty states emphatically. When he returns to a location, the actual construction phase begins and generally lasts three weeks.
And herein lies the art. Dougherty is not building monuments like heavy stones of Henry Moore or the generals on horseback that have endured a century of winters in Washington and Richmond. The swirling masses of saplings, more reminiscent of the emotional brushwork of a Van Gogh, are temporary structures. “They stay up two years and need to come down while they still look great,” Dougherty says. “The line between trash and treasure is very thin in the sticks.”
Art critic John Perreault understands the medium: “Dougherty’s sculptures are festive. They are events rather than monuments, holding their own by virtue of their manner of construction and inflection of the site, revealing the site through surprise. They are signatory rather than a species of unwarranted, unwanted, incomprehensible oratory. They are about what they are. And just as important, they are about where they are. They do not preach. Through them, the artist signs the site. Nature is the text. The sculptures are about what one artist can do. They are as much performance art as they are sculptural forms.”
Dougherty counts on making connections to people throughout the process. The traditional separation between art and observer is removed. He relates to every person who has signed the work gloves and those who have watched him create. They are a part of the process. He wants to talk with bystanders about what he is doing, answer questions, hear reactions and even accept invitations to dinner. The work is open and participatory from the beginning through the two-year life of the sculpture.
Each one is what Dougherty calls “a doorway into another world.” In those worlds, the artist has learned how to problem-solve. Among the more challenging locations was a Shinto shrine in Japan. The priest told Dougherty that there were snakes where he would be living and working. After requesting that his wife, Linda, be given a call if he was bitten, Dougherty stayed awake for three nights in a bed that was much too short for his lanky frame. Finally, he was too tired to care and became resigned to the conditions. “I figured they could go ahead and bite me.” They didn’t.
In Austria, France and Germany there were language barriers, but the works still evolved. Problem-solving is inherent in each venture. “I work with stick,” Dougherty explains. “That is the only constant. Nothing else is.”
The artist was home recently, leaving a work under way in New England, to spend time with Sam and his wife, Linda, a chief Curator at the North Carolina Museum of Art. An older son, Arthur, is in Asheville and daughter Eilene lives in Charleston with her husband, Dan. The grounds surrounding his home outside Chapel Hill are a testament to the sticks. A number of sheds hold carefully sorted and divided stacks of wood. The doors to his studio are an enchanting design of twigs, as is son Sam’s playhouse, the garden gates and fence around the vigorous vegetable garden. Dougherty’s world is a celebration of saplings, their potential to have curve and what the interaction will produce. For all of this, he credits a childhood well spent in the woods near Pine Needles.
His words in an excerpt from sister Kate’s essay: “Sometimes,” he says, “when I’m working on a sapling sculpture, repeating the same motion over and over, I’m overtaken by a feeling of serenity and freedom. In those times, I have the longest view. I feel not only the pleasure of my childhood and its building phase, but I sense the presence of the forests of long ago and feel myself to be part of the largest conversation.”
Dougherty currently has a sculpture titled “Outside the Box,” on display at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. Interested readers can visit the artist’s website: www.stickwork.net and enjoy the many fascinating photographs of the Patrick Dougherty’s works. PS