The Stickworker returns to Minnesota

One of the four columns in Patrick Dougherty's new sculpture begins to take shape at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

Patrick Dougherty calls himself a 'stick worker.' He makes huge, twisting sculptures out of branches and other natural materials he finds at the site of each piece. This week, with the help of dozens of volunteers, he began construction on a work at the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

On the traffic island in front of the Arboretum's visitor center, volunteers are creating a thicket of tall skinny saplings.

Patrick Dougherty, a tall bespectacled man with a shock of white hair guides the activity.

"I've got a lot of maples, sugar maples, that have no roots on them," he says. "But I have still dug holes and planted them in the ground so that I can use them, rather than as a growing thing, as a basic support structure for what is coming."

All being well, that will be a whimsical sculpture built on four columns. They will join at the top to form a curtain wall which will spill down to the ground.

This is just day three of a three-week building period, but the columns, which are a couple stories high, are beginning to take shape.

Jodi Smith is one of the volunteers weaving more maple and willow branches into the structure. She's having fun.

Patrick Dougherty
Patrick Dougherty has been working full-time on his large-scale pieces since the mid-1980s. He does between eight and 15 a year, usually spending about three weeks on each one.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"It's artwork," she says. "Basically we are just filling in the gaps is what I was told."

You can see daylight through the walls now, but after lots more weaving they will be solid, Dougherty says the piece is designed to encourage people to walk through and explore. There will be hallways and funnel-shaped rooms inside the columns.

"It's as much a gesture as it is an object."

"Those rooms will be open to the sky so that when you go in the piece and you walk down the hallways, you find some place to be. You find a little nugget, that little bit of sky in there."

Based in North Carolina, Dougherty says his work grew out of a desire to create with materials found in the woods around him. He's a sculptor, but likens what he does to drawing with a pencil.

"When you use your pencil, you usually strike the paper with one weight and finish off with another, in other words you are making tapered lines," he says. "And sticks are tapered, so they immediately kind of have the same feeling of making a check, a fast mark with your pencil."

Early work
Patrick Dougherty (lower center) adjusts one of the sugar maple saplings which will be part of the central columns for the piece. Volunteers are beginning the bending work on the upper parts of the structure.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

On the road about three weeks a month, Dougherty makes eight to 15 pieces a year. He's worked all over the world, in botanical gardens, on college campuses and a host of other places. Some structures are freestanding. He's also wrapped them around and through buildings.

The Arboretum's Manager of Interpretation & Public Programs Sandy Tanck says it took four years to find a hole in Dougherty's schedule to get him to Minnesota. She says there is something very primal about what he does.

"He talks about how all of us in our childhood played with sticks," she said. "Who didn't play with sticks? So it's a very familiar medium for people to be working in."

Tanck says Dougherty is also the perfect partner in the Arboretum's effort to raise awareness about the environment around them.

Dougherty builds pieces to survive local weather conditions, but recommends they only stay up for a couple of years. Not everyone obeys however.

Volunteer Joe Howell works on one of the columns.
MPR photo/Euan Kerr

"We left it up for almost four years," says Carleton College's Laurel Bradley. "Because people loved it so much, the very idea of doing that kind of violent act of ripping it apart, we just couldn't stand it."

Laurel Bradley, director of exhibitions at Carleton College in Northfield, commissioned Dougherty to do a piece on campus in 2002. He created a series of swirl-shaped huts and named it "Twigonometry." Eventually Bradley says the piece dried out and began falling apart.

"That's kind of part of the point of his work," she says. "It's as much a gesture as it is an object. And just like nature changes, dies and is reborn, so are his pieces."

So Carleton threw a farewell party. Bradley says people still talk about "Twigonometry" to this day.

The Arboretum piece won't have a name until Dougherty announces it when it's finished on May 22nd. The public can come watch what's now called the Big Build in person, or through a webcam.

Until then, there's a lot of maple and willow still to be woven.

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