For a sorcerer like Patrick Dougherty, the boundary between reality and fantasy is a permeable one. You might expect as much from a self-described “stick artist” who works exclusively with saplings and branches. Name a tree—willow, maple, sweet gum, elm, dogwood, sassafras, crabapple—and Dougherty will wax poetic about its texture, about how easy or difficult each might be to bend and to weave. Through his peculiar brand of sculpture (which he calls “stickwork”), he transforms these most basic of natural materials into large-scale public installations that often resemble whimsical castles, huts, and other magical abodes.
To date, 72-year-old Dougherty—a native of Oklahoma whose studio is in Chapel Hill, NC—has built some 290 structures in public parks, on university campuses, and inside and outside museums across the globe. Beginning June 4, for three weeks, he will inhabit the Town of Vail as artist in residence, creating an original sculpture in the lower bench of Ford Park.
Building castles out of sticks wasn’t always Dougherty’s ambition. As a young man with a University of North Carolina English degree, he worked as a hospital administrator for a few years before returning to post-graduate school at his alma mater in the early ’80s to study art history and sculpture. “The day I walked through that door had to be the best day of my life,” he recalls. “This whole effort to become a sculptor as an adult dovetailed with a secret childhood dream to become an artist.”
When Dougherty comes to a town, often commissioned by a local government or institution, he spends three weeks designing and building a unique sculpture from branches and sticks found on or near the site, always with the help of local volunteers who offer up a few hours, days, or weeks of their time to help with construction.
“I think of myself like a bard from medieval times,” he says. “I’m carrying a certain thing, traveling from community to community. I pick up ideas, and I give off ideas.”
Dougherty’s work tends to attract curious passersby, who often stop to chat, typically about tree forts they built as children. He has noticed again and again how his work tends to evoke people’s underlying childlike imaginations. There’s just something about sticks, he insists, that does that.
For Dougherty himself, this kind of “fantasy” life isn’t far removed from his actual life. When asked outright “Do you feel like you are living a fantasy right now?” he replies, “Absolutely,” adding that to be able to support himself working outside, traveling, and creating ambitious sculptures out of sticks is absolutely a dream come true. When he reflects on his past life and career, he says that what was holding him back from making the jump to becoming an artist was “more of a psychological barrier than a real barrier.”
“You always have some parallel life,” he says. “You have your own life you’re working on, and you also have some parallel fantasy lives that you wish you were, mighta’ been, could have. Just a little out of reach but running right alongside of you. For me, it was not too far to go to step over there. I decided I really wanted to be a sculptor, and that seemed to outweigh all other concerns at the time.”
About what he has in mind for his Ford Park installation in Vail Village, the only thing Dougherty will divulge is that he will probably create something without a roof. He thinks it would be nice to stand inside and experience the snow falling from the sky.
The Betty Ford Alpine Gardens will be hosting a photography exhibition showcasing Dougherty’s work in conjunction with the installation from May 1 through July 9; bettyfordalpinegardens.org. For more information about Patrick Dougherty’s Ford Park installation, visit artinvail.com; volunteers interested in helping the artist at work from June 4 to 22 can register via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org, with “Stickwork” in the subject line.