North Carolina-based sculptor Patrick Dougherty builds large-scale installations that you could say are quite… organic.
He combines his love for sculpture and the great outdoors by using willow tree saplings as his medium of choice. Along with a team of volunteers, Dougherty is able to weave, bend, curve, and shape the branches into (uninhabitable) houses and huts.
In the past 30 years, he’s created 250 works using these organic materials and primitive building techniques. One recent work involved putting up a monument in Melbourne’s Federation Square. Another, in Montana, USA, features the sculpture wrapping itself in and around a small school house.
We talked to Patrick Dougherty to learn more about his art.
How did you get started as an artist? And where did you learn your craft?
“I have come to believe that one’s childhood shapes a sculptor’s choice of his or her materials. For me, it was growing up in the woodlands of North Carolina, which are overgrown with small trees and where forests are a tangle of intersecting natural lines.
“In fact, I have always loved the drawing quality of the winter landscape in which one might imagine fantasy shapes drawn into the upper branches of trees. For me, tree branches and saplings also have the rich associations with childhood play and with the shelters built by animals. Picking up a stick and bending it seems to give me big ideas. I think this ‘know how’ is one that every human carries as a legacy from our hunting and gathering past.
“In the early 1980s, despite graduate training as a hospital administrator, I returned to the University of North Carolina with the intention of becoming a sculptor. After all the experimentation with clay, metal and wood that is characteristic of student work, I began seriously exploring saplings and sticks as a way of making sculpture.
“After working with this material for a while, I began to see I had a deeper resonance with it. I began to see it as mankind’s first building material and explore that deep association. By 1985, I was gaining some credibility and my art career was underway.
“My first works were modest efforts that used sticks to build objects scaled to my own height. But as opportunities presented themselves, I began to integrate my work into architectural situations and then to play sapling sculptures against natural settings. Through experimentation, I was able to up-scale my efforts and to build work that seemed to spin across tops of buildings and flow through groups of trees.”
Your works are mind-boggling. We can’t fathom how you manage to weave branches and trees into houses and statues. How do you do it? What’s the most challenging part in making these? How long does each artwork usually take?
“Each installation takes three weeks. Usually, I rely on the sponsorship of an organisation to help fund and organise the work. Through their good name in the community, I recruit volunteers, find a source for saplings, and gain all the necessary permissions. Currently, botanic gardens and arboretums are extending invitations, but I also work for universities, art museums and an occasional business.
“One aspect of such partnerships has been the use of volunteers to help gather the saplings and help with the construction. Generally, I might have four people working at any one time, but during the three-week period of work, this might mean that 50 different people had played a part in its development.
“The crew includes both rich and poor, educated or not, and people of all ages. It might be a hippie and a businessman working with a grandmother and a high school senior. For a short period of time, all these people unite as stick workers and indulge some of their most basic urges to build.
“I have learned how to work productively with a team at my side and how to apportion work and be encouraging. I am fond of saying that sticks were mankind’s first building material, and even the modern person continues to have a deep affinity for how to use them.
“As for challenges, each project has its unique challenges. Sometimes it is finding the right material, which can be particularly challenging in tropical settings. Sometimes, it is weather, though we have not often been stopped, even by snow. Recently in Colorado, however, a snowstorm came up so strongly that we couldn’t SEE to work so that necessitated a break for half a day.
“Sometimes, it is the site and problems with city zoning and other requirements that enmesh us in paperwork before the real work can begin. However, despite these problems and sometimes sticks that refuse to bend, an occasional lack of assistants, I have always finished the work on time.
“I imagine myself to be a problem solver and I face all kinds of snags every day with that mindset. It is fun to work with gardens and arboretums because their staffs are specialists in solving the kind of problems that sculptors often have; that is, how to harvest materials, haul something, or correctly set up the scaffolding for work.”
What message do you hope to impart with your art?
“I believe that artists should follow their compulsions when imagining new work and let art history take care of itself. I have always imagined that my job is to make compelling work which stirs the viewer up, excites the imagination and causes passersby to come running.
“For me, that has meant exploring non-traditional settings and building sculpture on-site with saplings from some nearby grove. Since sticks are frail, it has also meant delving into concepts of impermanence and life cycles. In this quest to intrigue, the element of surprise and finding a rightness-of-scale are key.
“Although my sculptures are not meant for habitation, they tend to remind people of their profound connection to the world of nature, and seem to foster fantasies of walking away from the geometry of the city dweller and fading back into the forest for a day.”
How have your past works changed the communities where they were built?
“I have worked in many wonderful communities and made friends throughout the world. I enjoy identifying a provocative site for building a sculpture and then constructing an artwork that excites the imagination of those who pass by. I tend to chat and engage the viewers during my stay, hoping to tap the goodwill of that place and to weave those energies into the fabric of the sculpture.”
Lastly, what are you working on next?
“I am currently building in Green Mountain Falls, Colorado, and have projects lined up for August, September, and several years beyond. Each sculpture is site-specific and reacts to its surroundings, so always something new. My favourite is always the sculpture I am working on. The finished product is for the viewer’s pleasure.”
You can see more of Patrick Dougherty and his work here.