EK Interview: Patrick Dougherty

Art Blog - Patrick Dougherty - Empty Kingdom

Patrick Dougherty, first featured back in August 2012, is the magnanimous sculptor of extraordinary nests – tangled confectionery which twines into the environment – succumbing sweetly to nature as the seasons wear on. Read on for a fascinating interview with this man of legend!

So tell us a little about yourself Patrick – what are you and where do you come from?

I make my living as a sculptor and saplings are my game. I live in Chapel Hill, NC in the United States and travel extensively to do my work.

You work in quite an unusual medium, and on a truly incredible scale. Have you always been a creator? How did you first become interested in working with sticks and creating woven sculptures?  

I have come to believe that one’s childhood shapes a sculptor’s choice of his or her materials.  For me it was growing up in the woodlands of North Carolina, which are overgrown with small trees and where forests are a tangle of intersecting natural lines. In fact, I have always loved the drawing quality of the winter landscape in which one might imagine fantasy shapes drawn into the upper branches of trees.

Art Blog - Patrick Dougherty - Empty Kingdom

Where do you draw your inspiration from? Is there a particular source you find yourself returning to time and again?

For me, tree branches and saplings have the rich associations with childhood play and with the shelters built by animals. Picking up a stick and bending it seems to give me big ideas.

How would you describe the relationship between your sculptures and the materials from which they are made? Do you source your materials from the surrounding landscapes, and if so, on what basis do you choose them from the myriad of others? Is this primarily based on their aesthetic or physical properties or something else altogether?

I start by finding a good stand of saplings nearby, and often I capitalize on someone’s desire to maintain their property. The saplings that I gather range from finger to wrist size, and I gather them for both their color and flexibility. Willow is a favorite sapling for basket makers, but I often use Maple, Sweet Gum, Elm, or Dogwood. Sometimes I use more exotic saplings like Sassafras, Crabapple or fruitwoods. In Japan I experimented with reeds and bamboo. I
have also tried Strawberry Guava in Hawaii.

Art Blog - Patrick Dougherty - Empty Kingdom

Your sculptures evoke a strong, dynamic conversation with the environment in which they are created – and in fact, the landscapes in which they stand tend to be magnificent in their own right. Do your creations develop in your minds eye independently or are the usually a response to the landscape in which they stand?

When trying to find what to build for a particular setting, I look for starting points. As I struggle to understand the location, I might see a word or a title on the newsstand, the outline of a mountain range in the distance, or hear a turn of a phase from a passer-by. The creative state of mind is one rich in connections, whereby words and images can blend and give rise to an inkling of a new idea. Once the overall effort is described, the actual work is shaped day by day as I react to what I see and try to improve the overall effect.

Art Blog - Patrick Dougherty - Empty Kingdom

What do you look for in selecting the locations for your works? Do you find that you can imagine a piece to suit any surroundings or are there particular places that simply speak to you and others that you struggle to work with at all?

I have always imagined that my job is to make compelling work which stirs the viewer up, excites the imagination and causes passersby to come running. For me, that has meant exploring nontraditional settings and building sculpture on- site with saplings from some nearby grove. Since sticks are frail, it has also meant delving into concepts of impermanence and life cycles. In this quest to intrigue, the element of surprise and finding a rightness-of-scale are key.

Each project has its unique challenges. Sometimes it is finding the right material, which can be particularly challenging in tropical settings. Sometimes, it is weather, though we have not often been stopped, even by snow. Recently, in Colorado, however, it came up so strongly that we couldn’t SEE to work so that necessitated a break for half a day. Sometimes, it is the site and problems with city zoning and other requirements that enmesh us in paperwork before the real work can begin. However, despite these and sometimes sticks that refuse to bend, an occasional lack of assistants, I have always finished the work on time. I imagine myself to be a problem solver and I face all kinds of snags everyday with that mindset. It is fun to work with gardens and arboretums because their staffs are specialists in solving the kind of problems that sculptors often have; that is, how to harvest materials, haul something, or correctly set up the scaffolding for work.

Art Blog - Patrick Dougherty - Empty Kingdom

Sculptures often exist in a singular sense, free to be moved, exhibited in a vast variety of surroundings. In contrast, your sculptures are not only physically entwined with the environment but also engage with the viewer on an individual level, allowing them to explore and examine in an intimate way. Has this personal relationship always been an intentional component of your work, and how does it guide or influence what you do?

One aspect of my success as a sculptor has been the growing receptivity of not only museum goers but the general public to installation work and work made from natural materials. In one way, a growing number of people no longer have grandparents to visit on the farm, and this loss of agrarian roots has left us with a sense of loss and a growing nostalgia for things natural. It seems the public has a more intense interest in environmental issues and somehow this also translates into more intense feelings about things like sculptures made from sticks.

Art Blog - Patrick Dougherty - Empty Kingdom

One of the most striking features of your work is its ephemeral nature – the structures you create stand at the will of the elements and eventually will return to the wilderness. It’s an unusual approach to the concept of a sculpture, which are usually made with a view to permanence. Could you tell us about the significance behind your decision to allow your work to devolve naturally, rather than dismantling it?

With branches and saplings the line between trash and treasure is very thin, and the sculptures, like the sticks they are made from, begin to fade after two years. Often the public imagines that a work of art should be made to last, but I believe that a sculpture, like a good flowerbed has its season.

This also allows the public to see the work not only in its initial completeness but in its gradual disintegration. Does this affect the way you create – do you approach it with a view only to the initial structure as your work, or to shape each gradual stage of its existence as part of your creation as well?

I generally work in public, and passers-by have access to the process of building the sculpture. The relationship that develops with people who live and work nearby has turned out to be a very interesting secondary gain. I think of conversations as a kind of cultural exchange, and I’ve learned to capitalize on the energy that it generates in me. Being friendly opens a door for the regular users of a space and helps to dispel some of the negative myths that surround artwork and artists.

Art Blog - Patrick Dougherty - Empty Kingdom

Having worked for a lengthy period of time in such close interaction with the natural surroundings of a particular site, what kind of relationship do you find you develop with the individual sites of your work? Does this change at all as the surroundings gradually return to its natural state? What kind of attachment do you feel to your final creation? Do you view this process of disintegration as an aggressive or difficult process to witness? How do you know when to step away, and that your work is done? Is there a gut feeling that guides the process or is it more calculated – and does it differ for each piece?

I imagine an agreement with my viewers. I take great pleasure in the building process with all its problem solving, and once it is finished it’s their job to enjoy it. I love the challenge of trying to achieve the right scale and build a work that seems integrated and blends well with its surroundings. I like to see children running towards the openings and people standing on the street and pointing. My favorite is always the sculpture I am working on. The finished product is for the viewer’s pleasure.

I watch with interest the life cycle of my sculptures. In the beginning they have the vigor of their teenage years with the hubbub of “dating” and winning new friends. They mature into their sites and become companions for the inquisitive.

Two years down the road, the lines of the sculpture begin to droop and, in subsequent years, it sheds until it becomes just an unnoticed heap of sticks. This natural life is part and parcel of my work, connecting my sculptures to Nature and the seasons of life.

Art Blog - Patrick Dougherty - Empty Kingdom