Patrick Dougherty’s sculptures are possibly the most site-specific art in the world. It’s not just that his works utilize saplings and sticks from the environment in which his sculptures are built. It’s that Dougherty doesn’t even know what he’s going to build until he spends time in the locale for one of his works. He lets the setting dictate the work.
“I look for starting points,” Dougherty explains. “As I struggle to understand the location, I might see a word or a title on the newsstand, the outline of a mountain range in the distance, or hear a turn of a phrase from a passer-by.”
Each work reflects not just the vegetation of its setting but the mood as well, which is why the choice of site is so critical to each work—Saharan-style huts in Sarasota, Florida, a chain of circles in Denmark’s Tickon Sculpture Park, Middle-Earth-style inhabitable tree trunks at Honolulu’s Contemporary Art Museum. It is not until the locations are imprinted on Dougherty’s mind that the works come to life—the swirling mountains of saplings soon inseparable from the landscape that surrounds them.
“These are not line-by-line renderings, and during the building process I often have to read into these loose sketches, saying to myself: ‘Oh, I must have meant this,’” Dougherty says. “One big advantage of working on-site, one line at a time, is the ability to adjust the scale of the work to the site. As I come to know the site and take its full measure, I constantly adjust the work to fit any new revelation.”
The point is to create what Dougherty once called “structures that had reciprocity with their surroundings.” He had the revelation at his home in North Carolina shortly
after leaving his first career as a hospital administrator. He noticed that the saplings along his driveway had a tendency to entangle with each other when he cut them and piled them together. He began to see them as lines he could draw with, reminiscent of hatch marks, and a new art form was born. Since his first work, Maple Body Wrap, was included in the North Carolina Biennial Artists’ Exhibition in 1982, Dougherty has built more than 250 major works around the world.
As the work takes shape, Dougherty enlists local volunteers to aid in the construction. Each piece is built on a strict twenty-one day schedule—they have to be, given Dougherty’s busy schedule of commissions. Fortunately, with a team of workers to collect the many thousands of sticks involved, Dougherty’s works seem to come together easily.
“I am not the only person out there who likes a good sapling,” Dougherty says. “Closet stick collectors started coming out of the woodwork. Before long I had volunteers of every ilk looking for a chance to indulge their basic building urges. Because of that extra energy and goodwill, I have been able to make larger works. It’s also clear that it’s harder to hate a sculpture if one of your neighbors has worked on it.”
Dougherty is careful to maintain full control of the artistic content, though. “I am energized by the hubbub of the communal work, but I remain fully responsible for the outcome,” he says. “It is my work and the volunteers are free to relax and just dig in. It might be a hippie and a businessman working with a grandmother and a high school senior, and for a short period of time, we, like a small indigenous band, work furiously on beauty and burnish our object until it shines in its location.”
Because his sculptures are made with living materials, Dougherty’s work is ephemeral. The sculptures tend to break down after a year or two, living on only in photographs. “With branches and saplings the line between trash and treasure is very thin, and the sculptures, like the sticks they are made from, begin to fade after two years,” he says. “Often the public imagines that a work of art should be made to last. But I believe that a sculpture, like a good flowerbed, has its season.”
By constructing works with a finite lifespan, Dougherty evokes themes of impermanence and life cycles. “To me, the fleeting lifespan of these objects adds urgency on one hand and a bittersweet pleasure on the other.”
Now seventy, Dougherty shows no signs of slowing down. His 2016 is fully booked with commissions, from the Atlanta Botanical Garden in Gainesville, Georgia, to the cultural center devoted to Pippi Longstockingauthor Astrid Lindgren in Vimmerby, Sweden. Although it’s intensely physical work, Dougherty plans to create new pieces into 2018, with no plans to retire—yet.
“I tell my friends that currently I can endure two pains at once: a pulled muscle in my back and a toothache, or a jammed finger and a flare up of tennis elbow,” Dougherty says. “When I begin having to cope with three pains at once, retirement is just around the corner."
Photo credit: Same Wolfe