An inviting light bathes the space I'm in—that peculiar kind of gentle light produced when sunshine filters through tree branches. But the branches that surround me are not attached to a trunk; they are woven tightly together, bending fluidly to form slanting walls, windows, doorways, and a roof. It feels like being in a hut. The impression deepens as I step out of the structure, into a central space around which similar constructions—eight in total, each about twenty feet tall—are situated.
This clearing is like some otherworldly town square, the focal point for a village formed by nonhuman hands, perhaps by nature itself. But several pairs of human hands—and one pair in particular—are responsible for it. The structures, currently in their final stages of construction on the south lawn of Sarah P. Duke Gardens, are the latest pieces of "stickwork" by Patrick Dougherty.
Dougherty, a Chapel Hill-based artist, has earned a global reputation for large-scale forms composed entirely of tree branches and saplings—i.e., "sticks." The process is laborious, taking anywhere from several days to several weeks as Dougherty and his assistants bend these materials and weave them together, forming disparate structures that resemble the nests of enormous birds, primitive architecture, or, with a little imagination, even paintings.
For Dougherty, it's all about where one stands in relation to the work, and where the work stands in relation to its environment.
"Everything I do tries to have a resonance with the site," he says on the third-to-last day of construction. He directs my gaze to a bulbous shape sculpted atop one of the eight stickworks, then points to a bush located far across the lawn. His point is clear: the top of the sculpture echoes the form of the bush from the surrounding landscape.
Overhearing this explanation, one of the volunteers working under Dougherty exclaims, "Oh! We were wondering what those things on top were."
"They're doodads," Dougherty responds cheerfully.
This unassuming mode of speech is characteristic of Dougherty when it comes to describing his work. When I ask whether his works are more beholden to painting or architecture, he dismisses my intellectualizing tersely: "Everything can hit at all levels."
As I consider my experience of viewing the stickworks from afar versus up close, I am inclined to agree. From a distance, if one makes an effort to perceive only the lines of the sticks and the differences in shading, the stickworks can easily come across as two-dimensional drawings or paintings. Up close, where the forms' tactility can be seen and felt, and rays of light pass through lattices of wood and swooping windows, it's easy to take the structures as a form of architecture.
"It's got to play from a lot of different angles and have a lot of personality from each vantage point," Dougherty says.
The stickworks convey a depth of personality not only through the calculated efforts of Dougherty and his team of volunteers but also through the material itself. All the saplings, branches, and twigs used in Dougherty's projects come from local forests—in this case, Duke Forest. In an era where standardized building materials, foods, and many consumer goods have virtually untraceable roots, local materials organically integrated into their native landscape have a powerful appeal.
"There's a pleasure to that placeness, of taking something that's just nearby and doing your best with it," Dougherty says.
But working with this material also presents serious challenges. It resists manual manipulation and it carries pesky bugs. Dougherty finds relinquishing control to the material more stimulating than frustrating. "It's not perfect—you maybe would love a different kind of material—but you find the best you can do and strike out to do better," he says. His submission to the will of each sapling and branch—his willingness to release absolute control—gives his art its unique character.
Bill LeFevre, Duke Gardens executive director, acknowledges that working with Dougherty requires his staff to relinquish a certain amount of control as well. While Dougherty carefully considers the way light, landscape, and material will shape his work, neither he nor those who commission the work begins with a clear idea of how it will turn out.
"We had no set expectation," LeFevre says. "The best thing is to give him the most latitude possible. He's winging it. He's doing what he does and he does it very well."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Branch Manager"