INTERVIEW WITH PATRICK DOUGHERTY,
THE “STICK WIZARD” OF NORTH CAROLINA AND FAR BEYOND

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Patrick Dougherty was raised in North Carolina, earning a B.A. in English from UNC and an M.A. from University of Iowa. He returned to the UNC to study art history and sculpture.  His first work, “Maple Body Wrap”, was featured in the NC Biennial Artists’ Exhibition and the next year, his first sculpture was exhibited at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem.  Over the last thirty years, he has built over 300 sculptures worldwide, from Scotland to Japan to Brussels, and all over the United States as well.  He is the recipient of numerous awards and distinctions including the Factor Prize for Southern Art, the North Carolina Artist Fellowship Award,  a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant,  and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship.

Interviewing Patrick  today is Jenny Thompson, our Regency Park Partnership Community Volunteer in Raleigh-Crabtree Valley, serving its more than 22,000 Nextdoor Neighbors for the RPP with notices of web-content updates, special announcements, and press releases.  Jenny is a graduate of NC State University in Raleigh, and is currently a business manager for a leading Triangle area software development company.  She resides with her husband and two children in the Brookhaven community of Raleigh.  She asked to do this interview because she and her family have seen several of Patrick’s creations and wanted to learn more about them first-hand from Patrick.

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Patrick, it is very nice to finally meet you.  We first encountered one of your works on the  River Walk in Hillsborough. My children were ecstatic, and we came back several  times so they could play there again.  We next enjoyed your work on the Biltmore estate in Asheville, and more recently at Carpenter Park in Cary.  Even after all of this, I had no idea of how extensive and world-wide your creations have become.

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Can you tell our readers in your own words, what it is that you do?

I am a sculptor who makes large-scale, site-specific installations using only tree saplings.  The saplings can be willow, maple, sweetgum, or some other  flexible species.  I use their natural tendency to tangle and weave them into a strong structure that resonates with its surroundings and invites visitors to explore. 

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I understand that your childhood in North Carolina influenced your work. 

My childhood dream was to someday become an artist. I loved to make things, and like other children my age, I built forts and teepees and assorted “houses” of sticks.

As a child, I loved the drawing quality of North Carolina’s winter landscape, which is often a tangle of intersecting natural lines.  Our home in Southern Pines was flanked by wooded areas and our favorite playground was a dogwood grove where we hollowed out living thickets to make bedrooms, kitchens and more.  I would imagine shapes drawn into the upper branches of trees, the way others see shapes in clouds. For me, tree branches and saplings had rich associations with childhood play and with the shelters built by animals.

Thank you for sharing those remarkable beginnings with us.  How long do your creations usually last?

With saplings, the line between trash and treasure is very thin.  And the sculptures, like the sticks they are made from, begin to fade after about two years.  I like to tell sponsors that they will likely get one really good year and one pretty good year.  After that, the clock is ticking.

While I hope your outdoor creations would last forever, I know this is not the case. What happens when the effects or weather and use have greatly reduced their appearance?

When the sticks have weathered to look shabby or exhibit weakness, the sponsoring organization removes the sculpture, often chipping it for mulch.  Thus, it follows the cycle of all natural things.

What kinds of tree limbs do you use for your works?

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Willow is always a good choice, North American Natives used willow for medicine and basket making.  While I can sometimes get willow near where I will work, I sometimes get it from a willow farm in Canada.  That farm grows acres of willow for its environmental uses.  Due to its extensive root system, willow helps maintain and improve soil conditions in barren fields by reducing erosion, improving nutrient cycling, and increasing soil biodiversity.  These characteristics also make shrub willow very useful for riparian buffers, and stream bank restoration. 

 

Patrick, you must use a tremendous quantity of willows and other natural materials each year.  What about reliable sources?

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As my need for material grew, I started copying phone numbers on “land for sale” signs for lots that had trees on them.  I have gathered saplings near railroad tracks in Savannah and between warehouses in Madison, WI.  I was even given a patch of willow on the edge of the Verrazano Bridge on Staten Island.  Hawaii yielded the invasive, strawberry guava and Kansas gave me rough leaf dogwood and Siberian elm.  And while Louisiana has willow along its rivers, I soon learned that there were many water moccasins there too.

With mixed emotion, I must say that much
of my current supply of saplings is a product
of urbanization. As towns and housing
development sprawl, there is a small window
of time between the forest being cut and the
pouring of foundations. I need to keep track
of planned new developments and be there
at the right time to harvest the materials I need.

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Patrick, I know your construction method is quite complicated.  But can you give us a high-level summary of how this all begins?

I start with a site visit where I develop a concept and series of thumbnail sketches while studying the site.  In the construction phase, I lay out the footprint of the intended work on the ground. Then I drill a series of holes along the perimeter where long saplings are inserted and become a structural base.  Scaffolding is necessary to set larger pieces into intended shapes.

The Big Easy (2017) Sarah P. Duke Gardens of
Duke University.  Photo: courtesy of Michael Mauney

Out of the Box (2009)  North Carolina Museum of Art,    Raleigh, NC. Photo: courtesy of NCMA

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And after that part has been completed?

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Out of the Box (2009)  North Carolina Museum
of Art, Raleigh, NC. Photo courtesy of NCMA

So then the large-scale pieces are constructed through a process of layering. I will weave one stick through another a bit like a bird building a nest. After the central framework is in place, I begin adding the gestural lines. I always try to position the smaller ends of the sticks in one direction to convey a whirling, windblown sensation.  It takes three weeks of threading sticks into the surface to festoon the walls and “polish” the forms into a credible sculpture.

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Common Ground (2020) Davidson
College, Davidson, NC. Photo:
Courtesy of David Ramsey

What about volunteers?

My trick, if I have one, has been to partner with an organization and use their leverage and goodwill in the community in preparing to build the sculpture.  One aspect of that effort has been the use of volunteers to help gather saplings and help with the construction.  I might have four people working at any one time, but during the three-week period of work, this might mean that one hundred different people had played a part in its development.

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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. 

Anything else?

Being able to adapt is an important part of the process. Working full-on in public view, answering questions from passersby, and graciously listening to their opinions and stories seems to come with the territory too, and I actually draw energy from my conversations with the spectators.

Patrick, that is heartwarming and glad you have shared that with us.
Each creation appears to have its own theme.  Are themes developed first, or are these decided once you know where you will work? 

Fly Away Home (2022) Town of Cary, Cary, NC.
Photo: Kurt Hilton

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So I visit each site about a year in advance to meet with the stakeholders to get input, and for us to decide together on the site for the sculpture. I look for starting points.

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 phase from a passer-by. During this initial phase, I make word associations with the site and then develop a series of thumbnail sketches.  As I come to know the site and take its full measure, I constantly adjust the work to fit any new revelation.

River Vessels (2010)  Waco Arts Festival, Waco, TX. Photo courtesy of Phillip Ravenscroft

This is really an intricate process.  As you described it, I began to think of an artist who might contemplate what they are to paint and where they will paint it. Incredible process!  Does the time that it takes to complete an exhibit vary depending on its size, complexity, and weather conditions?

We always allot three weeks to begin and complete each project.  We need to schedule out all of our works in advance.  No matter the size, complexity, or even the weather conditions, each sculpture must be completed in a three- week period.

I had no idea about the necessity of a schedule, but it makes perfect sense. Can you describe some of the challenges you might face at a site?

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Each project has its own unique challenges.  Sometimes it is finding the right material, which can be particularly challenging in tropical settings.  Sometimes, it’s the weather, though we have not often been stopped, even by snow.   There might be a problem with city zoning and requirements that enmesh us in paperwork before the real work can begin.

Despite these problems, and sometimes sticks that refuse to bend, or an occasional lack of assistance, I have always finished on time.  I imagine myself a problem solver facing all kinds of snags every day.   Every month brings another unfamiliar bed to sleep in, a new work site, and a fresh set of challenges.

There is always fresh drama, a struggle that makes for a very interesting story line.  I live and work within the world of ideas, and I thoroughly enjoy these challenges.

Pomp and Circumstance (2011) Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR Photo courtesy of Dennis Albert

What about the sites where you construct your exhibits?  Do you contact a site owner first, or are you more likely to be contacted by them first?

Organizations that want to sponsor one of my works, contact me first.  If I determine that a project with them is feasible and will be of interest to the public, I will visit them to get started.  I look for pivotal public spaces and try to build something that has reciprocity with the surroundings.  As I build, I am constantly reacting to the site and its surroundings.

The pandemic has affected all of us in one way or another.  What about you and your work?

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As you might imagine, pandemic has caused the whole world to be reshuffled and this has filtered down to me as well, caused cancellations of some projects and rescheduling of others. I remember I was working at the Montgomery Museum of Art in Alabama when it became clear that COVID would intervene profoundly in our daily life.  I barely finished before the carpet was rolled up.

Rough 'n Tumble, Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts, Montgomery, AL
Photo courtesy of Sarah Graves

What happened after that?

Projects were canceled and I, like everyone else, was sequestered. I had been traveling monthly for 35 years and I was shocked to be grounded. But a stint at home revealed years of unfinished projects and loose ends, and a fishpond and garden needing attention.

The interesting thing was that as pandemic wore on and did not go away, it caused people to seek relief by turning to botanical gardens and other outdoor spaces.  Finally after four long months at home, I was ready to get back to work when the gardens started calling again, so I could get back to building sculptures. 

Of the countless exhibits you have created world-wide, is there one that sticks out to you as one of your most memorable? 

My favorite sculpture is always the one I am currently working on.

But one I particularly enjoyed was at the Taft Museum in Cincinnati.  The real challenge was to preserve the dignity of the formal front yard while spanning the walkway, avoiding the peonies, and creating a rollicking sculpture that fit the space.  Solving issues like these made this a most memorable project for me!

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Far Flung (2018) Taft Museum of Art, Cincinnati, OH.
Photo courtesy of Robert A. Flischel Photography

Far Flung (2018) Taft Museum of Art,
Cincinnati, OH.  Photo courtesy
of Robert A. Flischel Photography

Any others?

One other was Shindig, at the Renwick of the Smithsonian in Washington, DC in 2015 which was part of a group show and had a million visitors that year, including dignitaries such as Michelle Obama.
 

Shindig was inspired by ideas of growth and escape.  It was comprised of ten elements placed provocatively in the gallery to suggest seeds in their initial thrust, sending up tendrils to find light.  These teardrop-shaped “seeds” flash and careen and rebound on walls and ceiling.

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Shindig (2015) Renwick Gallery, Smithsonian, Washington, DC.  Photo courtesy of Ron Blunt

What do you hope that visitors will experience when interacting with one of your works? 

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I hope my works bring up positive associations with the natural world.  Although my sculptures are not meant for habitation, they tend to remind people of their profound connection to the world of plants and seem to foster fantasies of walking away from the geometry of the city dweller and fading back into the forest for a day.

I have always imagined that my job is to make a compelling work which 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.

Double or Nothing (2011) Washington University, St Louis, MO
Photo courtesy of  Chandler Curlee

Patrick, since your schedule is so exacting, including the travel times, what are your plans for the rest of 2022? 

 

I plan to work in Egg Harbor, WI in June, Fishtail, MT in July, and Jackson, WY in August, finishing the year with Kensington, NH in October, and West Palm Beach. FL in August, finishing the year

Where can our readers best see you works right now?

Keeping in mind that the sponsoring organizations can always disassemble a project when it has passed its usefulness, I know that the Carpenter Park exhibit in Cary will be there for some time.  I believe the following are still in place, but you might want to check first:

Sandhills Community College, Pinehurst NC
Patterson School Foundation, Lenoir NC
Biltmore Estate, Asheville NC
Davidson College, NC
SCAD, Savannah GA
Christ Church Episcopal School, Greenville SC

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Patrick, is there such a thing as a big next challenge for you?

Yes, and two actually come to mind.

My big challenge right now is that we have ten works scheduled for this calendar year.  These will keep us very busy and demand the full attention of all our resources.

On a higher level, our contemporary challenge as a society is how to reconnect and live in harmony with the plants and animals that still share the earth.

 

I really appreciate all of your time today.  In closing, is there anything you wish to say to all of our readers?

Fly Away Home (2022) Town of Cary, Cary, NC.
Photo: Kurt Hilton

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If your readers don’t already tinker, I hope each of them will grab a bit of the material world and make something - a fanciful object or something they need.

 

I know that the activity of making sculptures from natural materials has helped me to personalize the world and has provided a gleaming portal to an enhanced life.

WaltzintheWoods2 (2015) Morris Arboretum at University of Pennsylvania
Photo courtesy of Rob Cardillo, Rob Cardillo Photography

Patrick, thank you so much for taking this time, and I sincerely hope that those of us who have not experienced your works first-hand, will now take the opportunity to do so while they still can.