Patrick Dougherty’s Stickworks Augments the Experience of Fall in Massachusetts
Peabody Essex Museum, Salem; Tower Hill Botanical Garden, Boylston; College of the Holy Cross, Worcester
Patrick Dougherty has been making popular installations over a 30-year career in the tradition of Earthworks. Raised and educated in North Carolina (he resides in Chapel Hill), he began with a hand-crafted house in the 1970’s and a decade later was showing human stick figures positioned or standing in chairs. His first works were displayed in art galleries and at art centers before he became engaged with architectural follies that are often massive structures that leap from tree to tree, cover facades of buildings, or stand as independent houses or similarly monumental forms. His output in the past decade numbers nine to ten installations a year—each occupying about three weeks of uninterrupted effort. As well as the hundreds of sculptures in the United States, his work has been enthusiastically received internationally in almost every country in Western Europe as well as Japan and South Korea.
Dougherty’s primary material is saplings which he invariably harvests from local sources. The tree cutting does not represent deforestation, rather a calculated effort to either develop a direction for more advantageous land use or to promote the growth of old trees through thinning. The installation at Holy Cross, for example, was partnered by the Greater Worcester Land Trust. Although a well-known American craft tradition for baskets and furniture, the weaving of branches has never before been practiced on such a monumental scale. The artist weaves the materials into site-specific forms that harmonize with their unique locations Dougherty’s work has been particularly welcomed by educational institutions, botanical gardens, historical sites, and organizations where multiple participants contribute. He explains: “my art is an opportunity to make community, although that’s not its primary goal; it’s only a secondary gain. In building sculpture and having people unite and throw their energies into it, a kind of magic happens.”
Massachusetts is favored by having three installations visible during fall and winter of 2016-2017. The first was constructed in May 2015 for the Peabody Essex Museum, Salem (on view through March 2017). http://www.pem.org/exhibitions/181-stickwork_patrick_dougherty
Entitled What the Birds Know, it stands on the lawn of the historic Crowninshield–Bentley House. Four wildly tilting buildings engage with the aggressive symmetry of the early eighteenth century Georgian-style house. The neatly painted yellow clapboards of the house and the prim neatness of the adjacent 1804 Gardner-Pingree House act as foils for the sculpture’s untreated saplings. Eccentric ovals of twigs form counterparts to the rectangular double hung windows; the sculpture’s circular openings in gables similarly contrast with the rectangular dormers of the historic building. It is the first time that the Museum has commissioned an outdoor sculptural installation and the process of construction is brilliantly documented at PEM’s website. Earlier works by the artist in Massachusetts include the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, Lincoln, 1990; two installations for Smith College, Northampton, 1991 and 2001; Wheaton College, Norton, 2008; and Springfield Art Museums, Springfield, 2012.
Dougherty’s Earthwork colleagues, Robert Smithson, Nancy Holt, and Andy Goldsworthy help situate his contribution. Smithson gained national attention with his use of over six thousand tons of rocks and earth to form Spiral Jetty extending 1,500 feet into the Great Salt Lake, Utah. The level of the lake varies with precipitation, revealing the jetty in times of drought and submerging it during times of normal rain. Thus we see a principle of Earthworks—the transformation of a site over time. Nancy Holt enjoyed a much longer career, developing complex pieces that address our relationship with space, the universe, and our reckoning of time. One of her best remembered is Sun Tunnels, 1976, constructed in the Great Basin Desert, Utah. Hollow shafts of concrete each 18 feet long and 9 feet in diameter, meet each other in an open X configuration. They are aligned so that on the solstice each year they frame the sun at sunrise and sunset.
Andy Goldsworthy built on these American experiments. Originally working in the landscape of Scotland, he focuses on the viewers’ tactile response to a sculpture. Like Dougherty, he selects untreated materials—leaves, roots, flowers, branches, even snow or clay from a river bed. His work, like Dougherty’s often emphasizes ephemeral presence, as exemplified by a driftwood structure that he assembled in a day to be taken by the incoming tide and dissolved by the water’s movement. It was featured in Goldsworthy’s 2001 film, Rivers and Tides, which also brought us images of Goldsworthy’s gathering of dandelions that coalesced around a void and an icicle embracing a tree. Illuminated by the sun, the icicle’s beauty was brought to life by the very force that destroyed it. His permanent structures include a serpentine fieldstone wall assembled without mortar for the Storm King Art Center, 1997-1998, located on the Hudson some thirty miles north of New York City.
Dougherty offers, in addition, a gift—the possibility that we become co-creators. Male and female, young and old, accountant or housepainter, we become part of the work. We cut the saplings, haul the wood, strip the leaves, bind the twigs, or climb a scaffold—he allows this work to become ours as well as his. Thus his work parallels other communal projects such as Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s Gates for New York’s Central Park, in 2005 which galvanized six hundred collaborators and thousands of visitors during the month of its existence.
Tower Hill Botanical Garden in Boylston, 10 miles northeast of Worcester, completed its sculpture August 25, 2016. The site is supported by the Worcester County Horticultural Society, founded in 1842. In 1986, the Society set its focus on creating a botanic garden at Tower Hill Farm, which is now operative Tuesday through Sunday, 10 to 5. Nestled under trees just beyond Tower Hill’s Systematic (formal) Garden, The Wild Rumpus combines three conical towers with swirling layers of material. https://www.flickr.com/photos/towerhillbg/29139023832/in/photolist-LoV7AC
The structure is remarkable for its thin, attenuated walls and sweeping veils. Seventy-five volunteers from their mid-thirties to their mid-eighties contributed a total of over 1,000 hours in construction. Set amidst the organic flow of the surrounding trees, the precision of the towers establishes an architectural identity. Indeed the combination of geometric solidity and additional transparent layers evokes late-medieval architecture exemplified in the 15th-century façade of St-Maclou of Rouen. Some viewers have suggested that the floating sections seemed to evoke the wind around the towers. Typical of the Dougherty’s playful naming, the title congers exuberance, childhood fun and memories of Maurice Sendak’s beloved 1963 children’s book Where the Wild Things Are.
Just Off the Beaten Track at the College of the Holy Cross was made possible through a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation that has sponsored a three-year initiative in the arts. The College’s program, “Arts Transcending Borders” seeks to make the experience of theater, music and visual arts more integral to the sciences, social sciences and liberal arts. Construction of Dougherty’s sculpture linked the College’s Department of Visual Arts and Cantor Art Gallery with its First Year program and the Environmental Studies Program, however, all members of the community; staff, faculty, students, and neighbors were welcomed. About 110 volunteers joined the initial effort of cutting and transporting the material and another 250 participated in the construction. Robert Bertin, Professor of Biology commented. “The gathering and construction phases of the project provided opportunities to touch, smell and work with natural materials in ways that are rare in college and, sadly, increasingly uncommon in modern childhoods. In addition to its artistic merits, this installation does its bit to combat the “nature deficit disorder” of which Richard Louv has written eloquently.” Just Off the Beaten Track graces the entrance to the campus and daily reminds us of the best of our childhoods and our ability to work together.
Of extraordinary variety, the subtlety of the artist’s vision can often be overlooked. Each site is deeply personalized, a response to its physical setting and its mission (both past and prospective). A store front, a children’s playground, art gallery, airport, or arboretum are each lovingly mediated with piercing insight. The life of these creations is most commonly about two years, during which the community plays! Exhibiting the happy abandon of children, we wander in and out of twisting columns, soaring arches, and intimate recesses. We witness transformations following the changes of seasons. Some installations finish with a community celebration. Close Ties, 2002, created for the Scottish Basket Makers Association (Circle Dingwall, Scotland) delighted onlookers as it provided the fodder for a traditional bonfire. Haywire, 2004, at the Bay Area Discovery Museum, Sausalito, was so popular that is was repaired for seven years. The museum communicated to Lynn Underwood, Star Tribune (May, 5, 2010) that the work “delighted some 2 million children and their young-at-heart guardians and encouraged who-knows-how-many games of hide-and-seek.” On the year of its dismantling, the museum engaged the artist to build a sequel, Crisscross, finished in 2012.
Dougherty’s selection last year as one of the “nine leading contemporary artists to inaugurate the newly rehabilitated Renwick Gallery of the Smithsonian Museums” (website) was an honor. Shindig was composed of willows from Double A. Willow, Fredonia, NY. The hollow twisting shapes, calling for visitors’ engagement, suggest seeds that have begun to geminate. The Renwick commented that “conceptually, visitors are thrust underground to experience the growth activity and emergent forces of Nature” (website). Experience of the group exhibition “Wonder” was enjoyed by thousands, young and old. Dougherty emerged not only as a champion of liberating egalitarianism concerning the creation of art but as the sculptor who has provided Michelle Obama with one of her most delightful photo-ops. https://theobamadiary.com/2016/05/13/first-lady-michelle-obama-at-the-smithsonian/