Sculpting Big Dreams in the Garden

Patrick Dougherty’s stick sculpture is now on display at Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond.

Once you see one of Patrick Dougherty’s sculptures, you may never think about sticks in quite the same way again. Made entirely of sticks and saplings, his swirling, windswept structures resemble something from a childhood fantasy—the stuff of storybooks. In May, he made a stop on his world stick-sculpting tour at Richmond’s Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden, where his “Diamonds in the Rough” sculpture is right at home in a wildflower meadow with the soaring glass dome of the Conservatory in the background.

The inspiration for building larger-than-life sculptures from sticks has roots in Dougherty’s childhood spent near the woods in North Carolina. “I had lots of experience as a child playing. I’ve always loved making things, and somehow different forces came together and I realized the potential of these saplings to build things,” says Dougherty, whose somewhat unruly shock of white hair and boyish grin hints at the child inside. Yet he’s very serious about his work; he even built the log cabin where he lives with his wife and son in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

It couldn’t be more fitting that the site he chose for his sculpture is near the spot where groups of school children enter the Children’s Garden. “Kids know everything about sticks. They can be weapons and tools, and [children] kind of relive our shadow life as hunters and gatherers,” says Dougherty. “What initially captivated me was the idea that this is how people used to make things, how people used to build things. As a child, you have some of those very same deeper impulses, so they came together in the material.”

The material itself costs nothing, courtesy of Mother Nature. But to bring his ideas to life, Dougherty relies on the resources of the organizations that commission his work—mostly museums, universities and gardens. Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden organized a team of 70 volunteers to help hand-select the red maple and sweet gum sticks and saplings from private land and assemble the structure over the course of three weeks. Thanks to donors, Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden also coordinated the hauling of several tons of collected material and provided scaffolding, among other costs involved in the creation of Dougherty’s larger-than-life sculpture.

Wherever he goes, there are plenty of volunteers eager to work with Dougherty. “It turns out that people know a lot about sticks, so it’s like they need an excuse to work with them,” he says. “A lot of people have low-level thoughts about building a chair or making a trellis. It’s not so conscious that you recognize the need, but when someone gives you the chance to do it, you’re right on it.”

Since most artists work in solitude, the collaboration involved in creating Dougherty’s sculptures is quite extraordinary. Although the vision is his, he depends on teams of people he has never worked with before to bring his ideas to fruition. “I really like the process of building and I do like the product, but mainly I like the interaction that takes place during the construction,” he says. With more than 200 sculptures under his belt, Dougherty’s art has become the center of community-building experiences across the United States and around the world in countries including Ireland, Denmark, Austria and Japan.

Dougherty’s work blurs the lines between sculpture and architecture. Some resemble dwellings, giant faces or vessels. Each sculpture starts with a drawing; sticks resemble lines and lend themselves well to sketching. “When you strike a piece of paper with a pencil, you hit it with one weight and finish off with another, and it kind of gives you a taper,” he explains. During the construction phase, the ends of larger saplings are buried in the ground to form the framework and pliable sticks and twigs are intertwined among them, much like a giant bird nest or basket. He names every sculpture; “Diamonds in the Rough” takes its name from the diamond pattern that forms the base of the multi-domed structure.

“Diamonds in the Rough” will be on display for at least a year, or until the sculpture begins to fall apart. “What I like is that it is all so temporary. I would never get to use this space unless it was temporary. And so I’ve been able to capitalize on all kinds of fantastic, non-traditional art spaces and then try to build work that somehow resonates with the site in terms of scale,” he says. After each sculpture is finished, “my interest fades, and I’m onto the next thing. I’m kind of a junkie.”

Before his itinerant stick-sculpting career began, Dougherty worked in health administration. He has been making a living from his art for 30 years, building about 10 works per year, many of which are featured in his new book, Stickwork. His next destinations include France, Italy and Hawaii. Even more remarkable than his work is the way he has turned a childhood fantasy into an artist’s dream—traveling around the world, inspiring people of all ages to dream big too.

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