Public invited to watch artist as he builds ‘stickwork’ sculpture at Fernwood

Published 8:38 am Tuesday, April 1, 2014

Photo by Zan Maddox

Photo by Zan Maddox


There’s something that humans love about sticks.

Patrick Dougherty loves them so much that the 69-year-old sculptor has made it his life’s work to go around the world building monumental, flowing sculptures made of saplings and branches.

“Picking up a stick and bending it seems to give me big ideas,” he says. Huge, leaning bottles of stick-made Bordeaux or huge circles spinning through a row of trees are examples of his big-stick ideas.

In early April Dougherty will set up shop for three weeks at Fernwood Botanical Garden and Nature Preserve in Michigan’s southwest corner. Unlike more reclusive artists, the Chapel Hill, N.C., resident wants it known that he welcomes spectators and conversations with them. In fact, these chats give him energy – along with ideas sometimes for his whimsical works. He likens each visit to “a kind of cultural exchange in which the energy of the people and the sense of the place are somehow folded back into the sculpture itself.”

As he has done in more than 230 places ranging from downtown Melbourne, Australia, to a small college in Minnesota, Dougherty will work with a cumulative total of dozens of volunteers during his stay, but usually only several at a time. He and his assistants, led by Rick Tuttle of nearby Three Oaks, Mich., (see sidebar), will spend roughly the first week gathering willow saplings. By the weekend of April 5-6 he expects they will start fashioning a creation that will probably be 20 to 24 feet tall and perhaps cover a 30-by-30-foot space on the ground.

“Generally I try to make something that’s grand,” Dougherty says.

Grand will be good for Fernwood, which is celebrating its 50th year as a public garden and is hoping a visit from the renowned “stickwork” sculptor will entice new visitors to its many gardens on a 105-acre site along the St. Joseph River and to its year-round cultural and entertainment events.

Dougherty creates about eight to 10 large-scale sculptures a year. His Fernwood visit will be sandwiched between sculpture installations in Tennessee and Oregon. After Oregon he heads to France.

What will he design at Fernwood? He won’t know until he’s here and is drawing inspiration from the place.

He says he usually begins, in fact, with words and the mental images they produce. Then he makes a series of thumbnail sketches. “Generally I’m trying to psyche out what might be a good piece” on the literal spot of his work. Conversations can come in handy. “Usually I’m soliciting people to tell me what it is” as a sculpture takes shape, he says. The people who watch a sculpture’s creation tend to get “protective” of their own image of what it ultimately should be. Dougherty says with amusement that people often tell him, “Don’t go too far with it!”

Dougherty doesn’t like to think of himself as the boss, saying that assembling the big sculptures is “an equal opportunity thing” – with the prime difference being that he’s by far the most experienced worker on the job.

The man who studied hospital administration in graduate school and then took a sharp detour into sculpture says he always loved to make things. It wasn’t long into his study of art that he began working with sticks, which he regards as “mankind’s first building material.” He says a stick is “an imaginative object all the way from childhood.

“I always said there’s a lot of closet stick workers out there, people willing to help me.”

Dougherty finds that his work, in using natural materials gathered in a way that resembles farming, connects people with nature at a time when fewer and fewer people can claim agrarian roots yet yearn for such a connection. He says people are concerned about what’s happening to the environment and therefore have more intense feelings about sculptures made from natural materials.

Dougherty says his creations don’t last long. They enjoy their “teenage years” and “dating” and winning new friends, but by about the 2-year mark their lines begin to droop. Left to itself, a sculpture ultimately becomes “just an unnoticed heap of sticks,” he says. His contract with Fernwood calls for it “to ensure that the sculpture is removed at the appropriate time.”