From Sapling to Masterpiece

Tree Art

Patrick Dougherty is an internationally acclaimed sculptor. His medium? Tree saplings of course! Dougherty combines carpentry skills with a love for nature to create beautiful, large-scale, temporary structures. Some are freestanding; others are woven into groves of trees or lashed around buildings. His creations begin with a sound, vision or experience that Dougherty’s imagination morphs into willowy and whimsical forms that resemble faces, tumbleweeds, wine bottles, palaces, lairs, or wind gusts — to describe just a few.

Inspiration Behind the Genius

Each piece is constructed on site and built to fit its particular setting, both in the sculpture’s size and theme. He begins each piece by experiencing and understanding the site. “I look for starting points. 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 phrase from a passerby,” he said. An advantage of working on site is that it affords him the ability to continually change his vision in response to his changing state of mind. “As I come to know the site and take in its full measure, I constantly adjust the work to fit any new revelation.”

His site-specific pieces are made by weaving tree branches of varying sizes, color and flexibility. Sticks entangle in everything they touch and it’s this simple tangle that holds his sculptures together. He selects species that are native to the location where he is working and has tried everything from maple, sweet gum, and elm to sassafras, crabapple, bamboo in Japan and strawberry guava in Hawaii.

Sapling Art

Dougherty relies on volunteers to help construct each project, which typically requires about three weeks to complete. The end result is something truly spectacular.

Why sticks?

“I believe that childhood shapes a sculptor’s choice of materials. I grew up in the woodlands of North Carolina where forests are an overgrown tangle of intersecting natural lines,” he explains of his choice of medium.

Despite graduate training as a hospital administrator, at age 36 Dougherty returned to the University of North Carolina to study sculpture. Within just a few years, his work was gaining recognition and his career was underway. Thirty years and over 200 pieces later, he continues to create art for sites all over the world.

“My first works were modest efforts that used sticks to build objects scaled to my own height. But as opportunities presented themselves, I began to integrate my work into architectural situations and then to play sapling sculptures against natural settings. Through experimentation, I was able to up-scale my efforts and build work that seemed to spin across tops of buildings and flow through groups of trees,” said Mr. Dougherty.

Toad Hall Sapling Art

Because Dougherty’s sculptures are made of sticks, they begin to fade after about 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. In my mind, most professions do temporary work and everyone in the work place enjoys the process of doing their job. Rarely do we rewrite yesterday’s novel or reread last week’s report.” According to Dougherty, “Our contemporary challenge is how to reconnect and live in harmony with the plants and animals that still share the earth. Sculptures from twigs and other kinds of environmental initiatives are helping with that awareness. I think my work does bring up positive associations with the natural world.”


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