Patrick Dougherty is a woodworker, but probably not in the way that you’re thinking. He gathers sticks (alternatively called twigs, if that’s your preference) and molds them into works of art. Really big works of art.
We stand with Dougherty on the third floor of the Gibbes Museum of Art; the artist looks down on his installation-in-progress, which, when finished, will be comprised of three large structures. “We’ve got steeples and the spirit of the city flinging around here,” he says, pointing to the two completed structures, which do, in fact, look a bit like church steeples.
“All the time what we’re really trying to do is use this space in a way that’s captivating,” says Dougherty. The stick artist (alternatively, woodworker) has been installing structures like this for the better part of 30 years, with over 250 installs under his belt. From Washington state to Washington, D.C. to Scotland to Japan to Brussels, Dougherty creates fantastical stick installations — large structures held together by the tension of the sticks alone.
Working with his son, Sam, and a few other helpers, Dougherty will have spent three weeks on the Gibbes installation by the time it is complete, working nine hours each day, Monday-Friday. The twigs and branches hail from a private property in Walterboro (a friend of someone at the Gibbes), and some museum staff joined Dougherty and crew to gather the material. Gathering usually takes about three days and most of the branches gathered in Walterboro were from Oak trees, but Dougherty will also use maple, sweet gum, willow, and elm trees in his installations.
“We had a preliminary idea that might not have been as exciting as this,” says Dougherty of the three-steeple installation. He studies the structures below him; from above we can hear the shuffling of branches, the slight stomp of boots as Sam and museum staffers step onto 2x4s, temporary platforms to better work on bending, twisting, and fitting twigs to match their desired shape. “We think of how best to encapsulate the space so people will want to look at it,” he says. He points, “You see the holes there? It’s kind of exciting.”
Dougherty is genuinely entranced by the stick structures he creates, although he wasn’t always destined to be a twig twister.
His first college degree, a bachelor’s in English from the University of North Carolina, didn’t quite fit the bill — neither did his master’s in hospital and health administration from the University of Iowa. But the third time was indeed the charm, and Dougherty returned to Chapel Hill to study art, creating his first stick structure in 1982 for the North Carolina Biennial Artists’ Exhibition.
“I always think of this as a bit of a drawing style,” says Dougherty of his creations. “If you strike a piece of paper with a pencil, you hit with a different weight at the beginning and end. Sticks are also tapered like that, it seems to imply motion.” There is certainly a feeling of fluidity in Dougherty’s Gibbes installation; the sticks have been carefully selected so that they point in the same direction, grays and browns evenly distributed to create a sense both of sameness and of difference.
Dougherty breaks the installation process down into three phases: structure, aesthetic, and cosmetic. During the intial structure phase the twigs are held together with string until they can be trusted to hold their own weight. The aesthetic, of course, is the aforementioned steeples, the flow, the integration of different sizes and shapes. These aren’t haphazard creations, but well-thought out designs.
And the cosmetic part? Well, just as you sometimes want to alter what you’ve drawn, you may want to “erase” part of the stick structure. The solution is simple — just place a smaller twig over your error.
Error, perhaps, isn’t the right word to use to describe any aspect of the stick installation. It is wholly natural — it’s made out of sticks, after all. And Mother Nature has a sense of humor, sprouting up in tiny green leaves among mostly bare branches. “The oaks hadn’t shed their leaves yet, so we managed to get a few outliers,” says Dougherty.
“There’s no way to predict,” he says of the overall nature of the installation. “You’re simply empathetic with your surface. You try to get the most out of it. It tends to be much closer to your subconscious.”
After creating close to 300 installations, how does Dougherty keep coming up with new ideas? Like many designers he utilizes word association to come up with a plan for site-specific structures. “When I arrived in Charleston I saw these towers around town, I thought that might fit this space,” he says. “I try to remember how I feel and how it might fit in the space. If that translates back to the viewer they can say, ‘Whoa, I’m so excited.'”
Because at the end of the day, Dougherty really wants his audience to be entranced by the stick structures he creates. “People have a lot of good associations with sticks, particularly in an environmentally aware era,” he says. “That kind of harkens back to pre-history. You know, peole have affinity for this material, so it opens their hearts a bit to looking at the work.”