Story + Interview by Sandra Davidson
Patrick Dougherty says he’s well rooted. He would know.
The internationally renowned artist is known for creating dramatic sculptures that evoke a near childlike connection to the natural world. His primary material? Sticks. His ongoing collaborators? Everyday people drawn to his outdoor – intentionally public - installations.
The magnetic pull of his work emanates from process and product. Hand tying, twisting and stacking thousands of tree branches conjures memories of the castles and forts constructed by most during a childhood. Wandering through and between the completed larger-than-life sculptures feels like stepping into the best possible version of those long-lost architectural schemes. It’s no wonder people want to and do help him build.
Raised in Southern Pines, Dougherty found his calling on a 10-acre piece of land outside of Chapel Hill, North Carolina. He built a log cabin on the acreage in the 1970s, a project that marks when his relationship with natural resources as source material began in earnest.
At age 36, Dougherty went back to school at Chapel Hill to study sculpture where he began artistically experimenting with tree saplings. His first stick work was showcased at the 1982 North Carolina Biennial Artist’s Exhibition. In the many years since, he’s used natural materials to sculpt over 250 works installed all over the world. He’s received artist fellowships from the North Carolina Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts, and amid a climate of growing concern about the fate of the natural world, Dougherty’s witnessed his work become a symbol of the environmental movement.
He spoke* with us about his work and about his feelings toward North Carolina for our 50/50 project.
One thing that stands out to me about your process is that you invite the community to be a part of your installations. How do you involve other people into the construction of your work?
I generally use volunteers in my work. Everyone is looking for something out of the ordinary and exciting to focus their attention on. I’ve never had any doors to close or any place to hide. My work is conducted in full public view. Constantly, during the building process we have people walk up and ask what we’re doing. I think that helps relieve a little bit of the tension about sculpture and about putting something in a public space that you’re only borrowing. There’s a lot of vested interest in a space. It can be the dog-walkers who occupy that space early in the morning, or runners, or kids after school, but each time a new group comes they feel like they own that space. A good piece negotiates with the various vested interests in that space to be allowed to be there or to be accepted in that space.
Does that energize you as an artist?
You certainly gain energy from a site. You’re trying to excite peoples’ imagination to build something that causes them to run over and see the work. The energy of the site and the goodwill of that place is folded back into these sculptures.
How does sense of place factor into your work?
I’m working in a certain spot and reacting to a specific environment. No matter where I go, I get the material from somewhere nearby, and then I try to do the best I can with it.
How has North Carolina shaped your creative voice?
I think that I’m well rooted. In an overall way, North Carolina has had a huge effect on my upbringing and my attitudes and my sensibilities and my aesthetic. I grew up playing in the woods in Southern Pines, North Carolina. We had our favorite dogwood tree. I think many things that have vibrated through my adult art life started there…[they] started crawling around in the pine straw and making various kinds of things out of sticks and picking up things. That really is what all kids know. In other words, we live a kind of a vicarious hunting and gathering past in our childhood. We all know that sticks are an imaginative object. They’re a weapon, a tool, a piece of wall, a drumstick, so there’s a lot of deep animistic associations with the saplings and sticks.
After wandering a while [I] ended up back in Chapel Hill. I felt like the woods there [were] a real warehouse of materials. As I built my own log cabin in the woods around Chapel Hill, I managed to garner materials from the woods to build with. [I was] building a creation. I always think of that as my first big artwork before I ended up at Chapel Hill and got processed through their art department.
Would you reflect on how your work has impacted your worldview as it relates to nature?
How you view your work and how other people view it changes over time. In the early ‘80s when I began working, sticks were thought to be a found material…a piece of junk.
But there’s been a huge shift since then. Everyone’s concerned about the natural world. The way that’s reflected on me is that people are really interested in my work for another level of reason. Somehow the sense of loss that you feel when you hear about something in the natural world [disappearing] makes the idea of working with saplings dearer and the idea of simple shelter clearer. There’s a fantasy world that develops as an alternative world to where you imagine that nature is not your enemy like in Moby Dick where you’re hunting the whale, but it’s like the whale we chase around the world to take the rope out of its mouth. We see nature and the natural world as a vulnerable place, and we need to do something now to help preserve it.
Not only do I have my own sensitivity to this change, but I’ve been involved with it in a more basic level because I’m dealing with everyone else’s fantasies about the natural world. It’s [the public’s] job to respond and see what they think. There is a dynamic there, where I do learn from my public about issues and things about the natural world, and particularly the intersection between peoples’ feelings and what they imagine the natural world to be. Is it the real natural world? Is it the wild world out there where there are bears? Is it conscripted plants and gardens where you organize a kind of fantasy world and you call that nature? Is it just breathing?
People need respite. They need to be able to go out and just look a tree without being arrested. If you stand on the street and you look around, they think you’ve lost your mind. If you come here and you look up at the loft of the tree, all of the sudden you recognize this person is having communion with the natural world. I think that this has turned out to be a much more important aspect of our psyche than we realize. I’ve managed to be pulled into this dialogue about nature and how we feel about it. Some of what we felt about it as children is provocative and remains with us in our subliminal dreams. We want to be in a place. We want to be in a simple place. We want to be surrounded by leaves. These are all primordial ideas that harken back a long way.
Will you tell me about how your life has intersected with the North Carolina Arts Council?
Early on when I was just out of school and trying to do my work down in Salisbury, North Carolina, I just went to the Arts Council and I said, “I have this really good idea for this public art piece over in Salisbury. I wonder if you would sponsor our catalogue?” They did give a small amount of money. We did produce a catalogue. That had a huge effect on my career, because publicity is one of the legs on which an artist stands—the ability to show their work, to show what you can do, and how you do it. That was a very important initial start. I used the money from my fellowship to buy a truck and trailer which I then trucked material to my sites with. That was another key component to being able to get in and around.
The Arts Council and the National Endowment for the Arts have supported many organizations which then supported me. I’ve been incredibly lucky, and I think you have to have a support system behind you. Having the goodwill of your state arts council and then the goodwill of the people of the state and your neighbors makes a huge difference in the propulsion to be an artist. I think I’ve proven that you can export some of what North Carolina is and be successful in the largest arena. For me, [that’s] being part of the bigger world of ideas...to be a bit like a bard from medieval times, carrying ideas and information from one site to another, [and] singing your song here, there, and everywhere.
You’ve characterized what public funding for the arts did for you as an individual. Would you reflect on the bigger picture importance of that as a society? Why does that matter?
The thing I really like about the North Carolina Arts Council and the National Endowment is that they’ve put a bit of seed money into a situation and that situation blossoms. The community must come up with part of the funding, so there’s a push-pull of encouraging communities to get involved with the arts in a bigger way.
*This interview was edited and condensed for clarity