Sculptor Patrick Dougherty has been creating stick-work since 1982. He has exhibited all over the world, from the swamps of Ireland to American city centres. The scale and beauty of his work has kept him in constant demand, but Don't Panic coaxed him to one side for a chat.
Does it bother you at all working on non-permanent sculptures?
I think that part of my work's allure is its impermanence, the life cycle that is build into the growth and decay of saplings. My focus has always been the process of building a work and allowing those who pass to enjoy the daily changes or drama of building a sculpture as well as the final product. However, the line between trash and treasure is 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 flower bed, has its season.
In my mind most professions do temporary work and ideally people in the workplace enjoy the process of doing their jobs. Rarely do we rewrite yesterday's novel or reread last week's report. As a sculptor, I enjoy forging ahead to solve the problem of today's work and relish the opportunity to plan a very different sculpture for the next site. I believe that artists should follow their compulsions when imagining new work and let art history take care of itself. I have always imagined that my job is to make compelling work which excites the imagination.
What is the main appeal of working with sticks?
Sticks and saplings are a common material that everyone knows and has personal associations with. They are the material of childhood play, indigenous tribes and gardeners. Give a child a stick and you see that immediately it is a weapon, a tool or a magic wand. For me sticks are lines with which to draw. I use many of the drawing conventions that someone using a paper and pencil might employ. Also, I have learned to amass the smaller ends of sticks in one direction which gives the impression that the surface is moving. As long as I continue to make discoveries about how to employ saplings in interesting ways, I am hooked on them as a way to build sculptures that I dream about.
Do you normally need manpower to help out with such large projects?
My trick has been to partner with an organisation and use their help in preparing the sculpture, including volunteers to help with the construction. Generally I might have four people working at any one time, but during the three week period of work, this might mean that fifty different people had played a part in its development. The crew includes both rich and poor, educated or not, and people of all ages. It might be a hippie and a business man working with a grandmother and a high school senior. For a short time, all these people unite as stick-workers and indulge some of their most basic urges to build. I am fond of saying that sticks were mankind's first building material and even now we have a deep affinity for how to use them.
Some of the pieces seem like a good basis for sustainable housing. Would you like to build something that people could live in?
I have seen some intriguing drawings of living trees as the core of a modern home. Although my sculptures are not meant for habitation, they tend to remind people of their profound connection to the world of plants and seem to foster fantasies of fading back into the forest for a day. I am not convinced that modern man is ready to embrace our simian past. Our contemporary challenge is how to reconnect and live in harmony with the plants and animals which still share the earth. Sculptures from twigs and other kinds of environmental initiatives are helping with that awareness. Ultimately my sculptures are not closets for clothes or drawers for pots and pans, but are meant to awaken subtle memories and stir the imagination.
Do you completely map out a piece so that you know what it will look like before you start building?
A site visit is the key to a successful sculpture. I make word associations with the chosen location, then make sketches and try to remember how I feel when I first approach a space. One of the advantages of working on site, line by line and stick by stick, is the ability to adjust the scale of the work to fit the site. Ultimately I develop a plan of attack and lay out a footprint for the sculpture. As the work proceeds, I navigate by my impromptu reactions. As a working method, I start with a structural layer of sticks and then use that as a canvas on which to build a drawn surface. I imagine sticks as not only a familiar backyard material, but piles of lines with which to draw. I use full body motion as others use a pencil and employ all the drawing conventions which one learns in school - X'ing, hatch marks, provocative diagonal lines, the whole works.
Our current issue is themed on Ritual. Did you study bird nesting habits when researching different shapes? What rituals are involved in your work?
I have not deconstructed bird's nests, but I have imagined how they were built and a lifetime of seeing things in nature have helped my awareness. At the most basic level, handling the material, the repetitive act, may be my primary compulsion. The way a sapling feels in my hands allows the secure feelings of habit to flow through me. I experience an equivalent to what a nursing mother might call a "let down reflex". In that state of creativity, I can concentrate my best problem solving skills. If an idea enters that arena, it seems incredibly easy to work on. In my journal I wrote, "Sometimes when I'm working to build a sapling sculpture, repeating the same motion over and over, day in and day out, I'm overtaken by a feeling of serenity and freedom. In those times, I have the longest view. I feel, not only the pleasure of my childhood and its building phase, but I sense the presence of the forests of long ago and feel myself to be part of the largest conversation."