As the grounds and trail system at the N.C. Museum of Art have expanded, so has the scope of the sculptures presented in the 100-acre park.
The Museum has recently enlisted N.C. native Patrick Dougherty to create a piece that is nature as art, and art made of nature. He's constructing it now through March 27, and the public is invited to walk out to see the as-yet unnamed sculpture in process.
Dougherty makes temporary large-scale sculptures out of entwined wood that remains bound together without nails, glue or screws. His work (some of which has lasted up to two years) has dramatically engulfed large hunks of buildings, depicted humongous, surreal tea parties pouring into the reflecting pools of museums, and in the case of "Be It Ever So Humble" (installed at the Savannah College of Art and Design), the sculpture coaxed people inside.
At Museum Park, Dougherty is using at least eight existing trees supplemented by saplings to form vertical shapes. A basket effect is created when smaller branches and saplings are entwined in a spiral/horizontal pattern. In "Na Hale 'O Waiawi" Dougherty also snared indigenous trees (that time in Hawaii) to make a sculpture that is part cocoon, part children's fort, and welcoming enough to sleep in.
Dougherty is part of a widening group of contemporary artists whose work is not only meant to nudge us toward reflecting on nature, but is also made solely from nature. Prominent in this group are its originator, Robert Janz, and Andy Goldsworthy.
Goldsworthy is noted for egg-shaped piles of ice, colorful leaves "glued" to riverbank walls with water, and dust formations that are photographed just after he throws clay into the air.
Janz once led a group of London gallery-goers into a double-decker bus and then had them walk almost a mile into the woods to view a frame up in a tree. He has drawn on beaches with driftwood at low tide, allowing high tide to wipe his work away. Most famous are his drawings with water on granite, works that evaporate in a matter of hours.
While Janz dramatically uses entropy to make points about the frailty of human existence, Dougherty uses seemingly frail branches and saplings to build sturdy sculptures that invite us to think more about what kind of planet we are leaving to our children. "Most people no longer have their grandparent's farm to visit," Dougherty says. "If someone sees the magic in a sculpture, they will be able to have the same reaction to other things later on. There is a validity to the art profession that goes beyond making a living."
At the NCMA, Dougherty inspects the work of his team of volunteer assistants, Ronnie Throckmorton, Bob Massengale and Brandy Davis. They are drilling holes to "plant" freshly cut hardwood saplings around pre-existing trees to form a base for three large sculptures. Throckmorton is a museum regular who often volunteers to keep the trails clear. Massengale and Davis got excited about this project after reading about it in the Museum's program guide. "It's like being a kid again--we're playing with mud and sticks," Davis says.
There is an element of play in this for the artist, too. "I don't get a chance to work with figures very often," Dougherty says of the three 20-feet-wide and 25-feet-high busts that he's creating. "The faces will look out from the woods while viewers look back in. There will also be doorways so people can walk into the sculptures."
Dougherty's work will expand the museum's outdoor three-dimensional legacy. From the popular yard-art critters of Clyde Jones to the classic lines of a Henry Moore sculpture, art fans walking from the overflow parking to the main entrance at the NCMA get a visual treat.
Not every museum that wants one has a sculpture as superior as Moore's "Large Spindle Piece" to welcome visitors. Moore's dramatic sharpness, made with soft lines, is in full bloom in this work.
Those lucky enough to get a regular-visitor parking spot will notice "Flight Wind Reeds" by Bill and May Buchen. This mobile has lines that feature delicate weighting achieved with a small dangling diamond-shaped bauble, countered by a large paper airplane-shaped fin. This sculpture is also supposed to have an auditory element, but the bells attached between the arm and the diamond were moving, but not chiming, on a very windy March afternoon.
Near Dougherty's installation site, N.C. State students have erected what appears to be a serpentine monument to cellular phone reception (the S-curves made of bamboo stuck in the ground go up and down in height).
The bamboo sculpture leads walkers from the top of the hill toward Chris Drury's "Cloud Chamber for the Trees and Sky." Except for the concrete floor and hidden mortar, Drury has an affinity to Dougherty's respect for nature. Drury has made a stone wigwam with wood for part of its side and a mud roof. There is new vegetation growing out of the roof, but the idea here is to view the sky, trees and clouds through a tiny aperture in the ceiling. The dark room amplifies the effect of staring straight up into a tiny part of the natural world. This sculpture is on its own woodland trail, near the Museum Park Trail, a macadam walking and bicycling road that will extend all the way to Meredith College and Hillsborough Street once the new Greenway Bridge opens on April 16. The bridge is a decent bit of sculpture itself, as it resembles Blue Ridge Parkway bridges built during the Depression.
Patrick Dougherty works on an average of 10 pieces a year. He has installed art on the grounds of museums, art schools and botanical gardens in the United States, Denmark and England. After this project he heads to La Coste, France. Dougherty hasn't been invited to install a piece on top of the Metropolitan Museum yet, but his take on nature as art will be seen in the same light as Andy Goldsworthy's once he spreads out and uses a wider variety of nature in his work. His ability to form sticks into interesting large-scale sculptures is solid.
"Many folks seem to be having the impulse to work in nature now," Dougherty says. "I capitalized on my impulse and it has given me the opportunity to work and have conversations about art and nature all over the world."
Dougherty works on the installation from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. with an hour break for lunch. Go out and visit him.