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A new sculpture in sticks takes shape in Chaska

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Patrick Dougherty works on a window on his latest piece
Patrick Dougherty works on a window on his latest piece at the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum in Chaska Wednesday.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

If you've driven along Highway 5 in Chaska in recent weeks, you may have noticed a five-spired building taking shape on the grounds of the University of Minnesota Landscape Arboretum.

It's the latest piece by sculptor Patrick Dougherty, who weaves huge structures out of sticks.

For the last three weeks Dougherty and a revolving crew of volunteers have been building on a hill a couple of hundred yards from the arboretum's visitor center. It's a sprawling structure with 20-foot towers and a lot of windows and doors.

"People have asked us again and again what it is," Dougherty said. "But we always say that a good sculpture causes lots of associations, and it could be something like the bird's nest you saw outside your kitchen window."

Patrick Dougherty walks towards the front door of his new work.
Patrick Dougherty walks toward the front door of his new work. He likens the structure to a maze, saying he designed the outside to draw people in and the inside as a place people would want to explore.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Or maybe something built by an indigenous tribe. Or, Dougherty said, it might even be something swirling through the current zeitgeist.

"This kind of looks like it might be in keeping with 'Game of Thrones,' doesn't it?" he said. "I mean, it's got the tower. It could be the hillside crown. From a distance it looks kind of crowny."

Dougherty built a piece at the arboretum nine years ago. He's also worked at Carleton College and St. John's University over the years. This current work is his 301st. He says he starts with a rough plan and then refines the design as he builds.

While this is hard physical work, bending and weaving the sticks, he likens it to drawing. When people make a pencil line, the finished mark is actually tapered. A stick, which is naturally tapered, can be used to create similar effects.

"If you organize the taper of sticks, you tend to imply motion," he said. "And then you can use other drawing techniques. Like, these lines in the window cross each other, and if they cross each other in certain ways, they can become much more provocative."

Hundreds of willow branches curl around the structure, and the walls seem to flow.

Patrick Dougherty compares his technique of wrapping branches to drawing.
Patrick Dougherty compares his technique of wrapping willow branches to drawing. He says just as sticks are naturally tapered, so are lines left by a pencil. He says just as drawing techniques can imply movement, careful weaving of sticks can imply movement and more.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

Dougherty's son Sam has been helping out his dad for the last three years or so. While Patrick talks in terms of drawing, Sam is interested in pottery, and his eye goes to the larger form of a piece. He said that every project poses slightly different challenges.

"You know, it's the same material, but there's a lot of nuance to the difference of the sticks, as well," he said. "If you are working with this willow or that willow or maple or gum or birch, there's different challenges to each kind of specific stick."

The Doughertys said the willow for this project is good and long. The arboretum's Susie Eaton Hopper explained that the sticks — a whole lot of them — were gathered at a U of M field station in Waseca, Minn.

"And they had three semitrucks full of willow that they cut and brought up here," she said.

Visitors have already been swinging by to check out the structure, she said. The public is invited to meet Patrick Dougherty Friday night, between 6 p.m. and 8 p.m., and explore the finished piece. Hopper said Dougherty's work is a perfect fit at the arboretum.

Patrick Dougherty's son Sam works on one of the spires.
Patrick Dougherty's son Sam works on one of the piece's five spires of the new structure at the arboretum. The younger Dougherty has worked on more than 30 similar structures.
Euan Kerr | MPR News

"We love having basically saplings and trees, an entire sculpture made of trees," she said. "What could be better for an arboretum?"

Depending on the weather, the piece could last for a couple of years. Patrick Dougherty is already thinking about what will happen then. Sometimes they are bulldozed, but he thinks this could be like the piece at St. John's, which was burned.

"This one might be a candidate for that, too, since it's up on this hill and easy to get the fire department here," he laughed.

The piece's name will be announced Friday. Dougherty's leaning toward something that includes the words, "You betcha."