—Arshia Simkin, The Underline
It is only fitting that Patrick Dougherty—one of six recipients of the prestigious North Carolina Awards—was honored at a ceremony taking place at the North Carolina Art Museum: after all, it’s at the museum that his 2009 sculpture, “Out of the Box,” is on permanent display. Dougherty’s sculptures are made of sticks and saplings that look as if they are being spun in a whirlwind and have somehow frozen, yet they retain a sense of animation.
The award was created by the General Assembly in 1961 to recognize significant contributions to the state and nation in the fields of fine arts, literature, public service and science. Dougherty was presented the award in fine arts on November 9 by Governor Roy Cooper. “I am thrilled,” Dougherty said. When Dougherty first heard that he had won, he said he started thinking about all the people and institutions that have helped him along the way—giving him funding, opportunities, and places to show his work: “I think early on I needed the support of my neighbors who encouraged me to kind of keep trying.” He also belonged to the Tri-State Sculptures Guild—an organization of artists from South Carolina, North Carolina, and Virginia and to Carrboro’s Center Gallery, all of whom inspired him. “Nobody is an island,” he concluded.
Although Dougherty studied English in college and health administration in graduate school, he said, “I always loved making thigs and so I just got a bee in my bonnet about being a sculptor.” He returned to UNC to get his masters in sculpture and art history.
It was by happenstance that he began using saplings as his artistic medium: “I think when I first started, I really didn’t think of them or know much about them. It’s just the availability here in North Carolina; you can gather them along the roadway, you can gather them on your own property, you can ask other people…it was a complete supermarket of sticks: you could just go out there and get anything you wanted.” As he continued to use saplings to sculpt, Dougherty fell in love with the scale of the work they allowed him to produce and because it was a way to “draw” using nature. “Some people like to work small but, for me, working large was a big thrill and I always say that this material has got the overtones of woods or the forest but they are lines with which to draw…What you’re really doing is making big drawing constructions—and you get to use your whole body to do the work,” Dougherty said. He reflected: “At the time I started working, nobody was interested in installation work. Nobody even knew what that was and I didn’t either. I just started doing something and it turned out to kind of have some presence.” Using natural materials such saplings also allows Dougherty to create works that are temporary, which appeals to him because it puts the “viewer into a more essential relationship with a sculpture.”
The process itself of making these intricate sculptures is multi-part, involving sketching, laying out a footprint using materials such as extension cords, putting large sticks down as structural elements, raising scaffolding, and finally, beginning the weaving. After all that, comes the aesthetics of the project: “Since sticks are tapered, if you organize all the tapers in one direction, it has a sense of implied motion,” Dougherty said.
Dougherty tries to use a “workman-like” approach to the process of art-making: he “doesn’t binge”; rather he and his team work eight hours a day with a lunch break and they get off at five. He is strict about completing his projects in three weeks.
For Dougherty, “a good sculpture is one that causes a lot of personal associations…[it’s] a conversation between the maker and the viewer…I’ll not have any fences or anything up around so that people can walk up and talk to me as I’m working and they give me ideas and they lend me energy…Oftentimes they’ll tell me about their favorite tree or their favorite childhood tree…or a bird’s nest they’ve seen…”
Sometimes the reactions that people have to his work are more ephemeral: “It reminds you of a walk in the woods that you took at a certain crucial moment or that you had your first kiss under a lilac bush—so soliciting or touching base with all kinds of already existing but low-lying associations is a way to draw people in and make them want to walk around and take a look at it.” Ultimately, Dougherty concluded, “I let the work speak for itself.”
- Learn more about Dougherty’s art at https://www.stickwork.net/
“Out of the Box,” 2009. Photo credit: NC Museum of Art