Evoking Emotions for Saplings

Sculptor Patrick Dougherty wants to change how the world sees the inanimate stick.

Patrick Dougherty sees himself as somewhat of a bard. He travels from town to town “carrying a kind of musical score,” he says, “infused with an idea or feeling from one community to another.” He spends three weeks at a time in each place and has amassed a travel list that ranges from Vermont, Kansas, and California to international locations such as Scotland, France, and Japan.

But instead of musical ballads, Dougherty tells his stories through sticks and saplings.

He calls his form of art “stickwork” — sculptures and structures constructed entirely with the woody material he acquires through local parks departments, plant nurseries, or city foresters. He twists and weaves these saplings into fantastical forms: castles, towers, tree hollows. Some take the form of pottery, while others resemble tunneled swallows’ nests, blown to a proportion that a human can step inside.

When I gave Dougherty a call in late September, he and his son Sam (a potter and fellow stickworker) were finishing up a sculpture in Eliza Howell Park in Detroit, Michigan. This one, Dougherty explained, would be a set of rooms you could walk through, woven from sycamore, ash, and cherry wood. The sycamore and cherry would create a contrast between light and dark.

“I know a lot about the properties of different kinds of trees,” he said. In 30 years, ever since he left a career in hospital administration to take up stickwork, Dougherty has built around 300 sculptures. He’s handled hardwoods like maple and sweetgum — typical in his home state of North Carolina — as well as willow, alder, dogwood, plum, guava — depending on where he works. “When I see a sapling, I see both the beauty of it and the possibilities that are there.”

Whatever the material, Dougherty’s goal is consistent: He aims to create art that people can experience on a physical or imaginative level. “I want to compel people to feel emotional about the inanimate stick,” he said. In that regard, his art worked on me, I told him. When I lived in Austin, Texas, I used to pass by one of his sculptures every day, a set of Spanish-colonial inspired rooms made of false willow (also called Roosevelt weed). I often walked inside and looked through its windows at Shoal Creek and the canopy of live oak above, half concealing the view of downtown. I imagined being shrunk down enough to get an inside look at a beaver lodge. It was one of Pease Park’s best features.

More Online: See more of Dougherty’s work at www.stickwork.net

But Dougherty’s sculptures aren’t meant to last. Each work survives about two years, he said, and that impermanence is an integral component of stickwork. “Fall comes and then colors fade,” he said. “Temporary work brings up the point of the essential, just like the life cycle of trees and the natural world.”

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