Branching out: Stick sculptor gains global following
BOYLSTON >> The towering, whimsical shapes Patrick Dougherty creates by twisting and weaving sticks together have gained him an international following. Now, the artist who lives in a log cabin near Chapel Hill, N.C., is back in New England to build two more of his almost cartoon-like stick sculptures.
Since the early 1980s, Dougherty has constructed more than 270 installations around the globe, from Chiba, Japan, and Melbourne, Australia, to Honolulu, Los Angeles and Waco, Texas.
"A good sculpture is something that causes people to have personal associations," Dougherty said in a recent interview. "It sparks all kinds of feelings about things in your own life."
His fans agree. They often say his installations — soaring as high as 30 feet — conjure images of the Garden of Eden, a bird's nest or a walk in the woods.
On Thursday, the artist's newest installation is set to be unveiled at the 132-acre Tower Hill Botanic Garden in Boylston, where visitors can walk the bucolic grounds that border the Wachusett Reservoir and view the sculpture.
A second installation was commissioned by the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, where Dougherty will be the artist in residence. Construction there is set to begin Sept. 4.
"The subtleties and nuances of each site take a while to understand," Dougherty said, describing his creative process. "You want to build a piece that seems sympathetic and something that people feel really compelled by."
Dubbed "The Wild Rumpus," the installation at Tower Hill was inspired by wind whipping through four hilltop spires on the grounds. A "flying wall," as Dougherty calls it, will weave through the spires with varying levels of height and width, reaching 12 feet toward the sky.
In many ways, Dougherty's success at stick weaving happened by chance.
He began working in the medium to repurpose discarded saplings along highways and beneath power lines that were left by maintenance crews. He said his work pays homage to the role of sticks in human culture: a child's affinity for play with sticks, or a tribute to our hunter-gatherer past.
"Sticks have an honored tradition in human development," he said. "There are still so many cultures around the world that use sticks for basket weaving, fishing and craft traditions."
Other New England locations that have showcased similar stick sculpture art include the DeCordova Museum and Sculpture Park, the Peabody Essex Museum and Wheaton College, all in Massachusetts; and Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island.
Each project takes three weeks to complete and generally lasts between two and three years, depending on weather degradation. At Tower Hill, Dougherty's installation marks the 30th anniversary of the garden and the 175th anniversary of the Worcester Horticultural Society, the organization that founded and oversees Tower Hill.
As with all of Dougherty's projects, he uses volunteers and site staff to help collect the indigenous materials and construct the sculptures.
Tower Hill volunteer Nancy Degon, 69, from Auburn, Massachusetts, finds the impermanence of Dougherty's art work the most intriguing.
"That his art is so temporary is interesting to me," Degon said. "It's a reflection on how life is in general. Not everything stays here forever."
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