Strictly sticks

The Arts

February 5, 2020

Following an installation at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden (pictured above), Chapel Hill-based Patrick Dougherty brings his temporary rustic sculptures to Davidson College. 

by Vanessa Infanzon

With names like Fancy Free, Whiplash and Wingding, Patrick Dougherty’s works of art evoke thoughts of whimsy and escape. It’s not hard to imagine a hobbit or fairy slipping through a door or window of one of the sculptor’s larger-than-life pieces. He creates these outdoor sculptures around the globe using only sticks. 

On February 2, Chapel Hill-based Dougherty begins his next project at Davidson College. It will take three weeks to build, and the artist will enlist the help of several student and community volunteers. The temporary sculpture is part of Davidson’s campus sculpture program, which features outdoor works by internationally acclaimed artists including Auguste Rodin and Polish sculptor Magdalena Abakanowicz.

“[Dougherty is] a well-known international artist, but also he’s in our own backyard,” says Davidson art professor Cort Savage. “It is a real opportunity to work with someone who is a homegrown artist.”

Students in the college’s sculpture classes will share an immersive experience from collection to creation, according to Savage. The work started in January, as students gathered raw materials from the campus, equal to a tractor-trailer load of long straight maple and laurel saplings, ideally 2 inches in diameter.

“Nothing compares to students working side-by-side with the artist to create the artwork,” Savage says. “It’s a completely different kind of investigation into artmaking and making sculpture outdoors in a public context. I think it’s going to be transformative for the students.”

Dougherty creates 10 pieces a year, and he has installed 307 sculptures to date. His son, Sam Dougherty, joined him three years ago. They spend three weeks at each location, with one week off in between. In November, they completed Magnificent Seven at Daniel Stowe Botanical Garden in Belmont. That work will be on view through 2020.

Once on-site, Dougherty considers the needs of the sponsor and evaluates the materials and the capabilities of the volunteers before setting a program. The saplings are intertwined — like making a basket, Dougherty says. He sometimes uses ropes to create a shape, but he removes them by the end of the installation. The work site is safe and open to the community, and Dougherty welcomes questions.

“I develop an idea at the very beginning of the process,” Dougherty says. “We lay the footprint of that piece out on the ground, drill a bunch of holes if it’s going to stand on its own, set our scaffolding around it, and pull the shapes we like.”

Dougherty, 74, grew up in Southern Pines and has a degree in English from UNC Chapel Hill, where he took sculpture and art history classes. He went on to earn a master’s in hospital and health administration from the University of Iowa, but in his early 30s, he decided to become a sculptor. 

When he first started, he liked the idea of using simple materials that were free and easily obtained. He’s continued his work in this style, gathering saplings from around lakes, rivers and railroad tracks and under power lines. If he can’t get everything he needs from a site, he purchases materials from a farm. 

He remembers his largest pieces, 50 feet tall: Roundabout in Dublin, Ireland, in 1997, and Abracadabra in Swarthmore, Penn., in 2000. Sometimes a site’s risk-management guidelines dictate the height of a project, restricting ideas. Dougherty’s sculptures might stay in good shape for as long as 18 months to two years. Some sponsors opt to take them down, while others let them decompose in place. 

The project at Davidson College was made possible by Steve Sands, a 1968 Davidson College graduate, and his wife, Marcy. Bringing Dougherty is a chance to introduce ephemeral work to the campus’ robust sculpture program, says Lia Newman, director and curator at Davidson. 

“The outcome of Patrick’s projects is spectacular visually,” Savage says. “They involve rudimentary hand skills and simple processes, and sometimes students come to believe they have to have a radical and sophisticated skill set to create a meaningful work of art. I think Patrick really puts all of those preconceptions to rest.”  SP

Photo credits: top photo of The Magnificent Seven by Craig Neil McCausland; The Big Easy (2017) Sarah P Duke Gardens of Duke University, Durham, NC. Photo: Michael Mauney; Far Flung (2018) Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, OH Photo: Robert A. Flischel; Double or Nothing (2011) Washington University, St Louis, MO. Photo: Chandler Curlee; Call of the Wild (2002) Museum of Glass, Tacoma, WA. Photo: Duncan Price

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