Installation artist Patrick Dougherty twists twigs and tames volunteers

Patrick Dougherty and a local team are assembling an original sculpture woven from saplings and harvested twigs. The environmentally vulnerable sculpture will remain on UVA Arts Grounds until its demise. Patrick Dougherty and a local team are assembling an original sculpture woven from saplings and harvested twigs. The environmentally vulnerable sculpture will remain on UVA Arts Grounds until its demise.

If you’ve been in the vicinity of the Ruth Caplin Theatre and the Arts Commons at UVA, you’ve no doubt noticed some unusual activity in the bowl-shaped area between the buildings. Renowned installation artist Patrick Dougherty, together with a group of community and UVA volunteers, is hard at work weaving a sculpture made from locally harvested twigs and saplings collected by Dougherty, in a collaboration with UVA sculpture professor, Bill Bennett, and his class.

A native of North Carolina, Dougherty began constructing sculptures in the early 1980s. During his career, he has received numerous prestigious awards, including a Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant, a Henry Moore Foundation Fellowship, and a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship.

The currently untitled piece is due to be completed on October 18, and the project marks the first time Dougherty has graced Charlottesville with his work since 1988, when his “Two Huts” was commissioned by Second Street Gallery.

While Dougherty begins his project with a set plan of what he is going to construct, his works change and evolve during the building process. The UVA piece will consist of five discrete container forms of various sizes connected by a snaking line of sticks, visible from above, that runs across the top. The containers will have interior spaces with ceiling heights varying from 8′ to 12′ that a viewer can enter. Dougherty will use the hillside to add a sense of instability because he wants the structures slightly off kilter. “The sculpture will both respond to and reflect its physical environment and the process of its own creation,” said Dougherty. Dougherty’s pieces are ephemeral, lasting for only a limited time. “Generally, there’s one really good year, followed by a not so good year,” he said.

The saplings, which are maple, came from a privately owned site identified by the UVA forestry school. Dougherty is pleased by the wood selection, as maples hold their color, and within the same branch, you find different hues: the tips may be reddish and the trunk light gray. These different color gradations can be used to an artist’s advantage.

A lot of issues inform Dougherty’s decision of what to produce. He needs to assess what’s realistic, factoring in the rigors of the site and who will be helping him. Dougherty works on 10 projects a year, spending three weeks on each one. His pieces range from the abstract “Out of the Box,” (North Carolina College of Art, Raleigh), to recognizable structures and objects like the Bordeaux wine bottles he did in Chateaubourg, France. A piece’s final form is dictated by its site and also by the tolerance of the audience.

Dougherty’s work is about the process: the gathering of the material, the assembling of volunteers, the constructing of the piece. “I like the problem-solving aspect of my work that includes how we’re going to get it made and who might help us,” he said. When Dougherty was first starting out, he did most of the work himself, or used one or two volunteers. But as time went on, more and more organizations wanted him to involve their volunteers. He’s found ways to have people help, breaking the project up into small units. The work tolerates some imperfections; it doesn’t always have to be exactly perfect. “I work over the entire outside of the piece so that the final lines being realized are the ones that I put on. There’s a lot of little detailing that goes on the inside and also along the baseline and various places, and I get the volunteers to work on those things.”

Dougherty says the repetitive nature of the work, weaving sticks in and out of each other and moving along without a completely conscious thought activates his creativity. “The process helps you master the stick and do good things with it, thinking about it only vaguely as you work. Self-
consciousness sometimes gets in the way of creativity. When you get in ‘the zone’ you’re not overly self-conscious. Your mind is going past your hand into your aesthetic.”

Working as he does, outside in the open, interactions with the public are frequent. “It’s very satisfying because you get an immediate reaction to your work. People like seeing something being constructed and they also like putting in their two cents about it.”

There’s also a good deal of white knuckle chance involved with uncontrollable weather conditions and volunteers of unknown and constantly changing quantities. And there’s also magic, for in the end, “It’s got to look good. It’s got to speak to people and get them to run over to look at it. Part of that is the saplings themselves. They have a reminiscence that speaks to nature, farm work, and outdoor life, but even beyond that, the piece has got to be well-worked. It has got to come out beautifully. That’s my greatest challenge. At the end of these things, this is what winning feels like. We did it. We turned something inconsequential into something that has some import.”

A concurrent exhibition at the Fralin Art Museum will feature models and photographs of some of Dougherty’s other projects, as well as preparatory drawings for the UVA installation. Dougherty’s work will be celebrated in a screening of Bending Sticks: The Sculpture of Patrick Dougherty at the Virginia Film Festival on Thursday, November 7.

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