Friday, February 10, 2017

A Sculpture Emerges on the South Lawn

Scaffolding helps to keep the foundational
elements in place during creation. Photo by Bill LeFevre.
By Katherine Hale

A bird’s nest. A treehouse. An alien spaceship.  A new sculpture, constructed entirely out of locally harvested saplings, is taking shape on the South Lawn of Duke Gardens. Starting this week and for the next two weeks, Triangle sculptor Patrick Dougherty will construct his latest creation with the help of a rotating crew of Gardens staff and volunteers. Even in its unfinished state, the sculpture is already drawing a great deal of talk and opinions. And that’s just how Dougherty likes it.

Dougherty and a volunteer add
more sticks to the mix.
Photo by Orla Swift.
“It is clear that a good sculpture causes many different personal associations with those who see it,” he wrote in his 2010 career retrospective Stickwork. Throughout the process of construction, he enjoys flipping the questions of curious passers-by right back at them:  “What do you think it is? And what should I call it?”

Beloved for picnicking and sunbathing, strolling and (ostensibly) studying, the South Lawn now takes a turn as host to a public art installation. Already this sculpture has undergone several transformations. On Friday morning, the third day on site, a small forest of red maple and sweetgum saplings harvested in Duke Forest earlier in the week had sprung up on the center of the lawn, complete with a luxurious carpet of mulch and surrounded by a halo of temporary scaffolding. More saplings, piled in thick bundles, lay nearby. By lunchtime, Dougherty had begun to pull the tops of the branches into graceful, looping curves and lash them into place, while three volunteers gracefully wove smaller branches in between the trunks at their base.

Weaving sturdy walls.
Photo by Orla Swift.
Everyone moves carefully but efficiently, as if they were all born to this work—and perhaps they were.  “When we were young, the ubiquitous stick was an everyday part of childhood play. It was a tool, a weapon, a rafter,” Dougherty writes in Stickwork. “I point out my belief that we inherit stick know-how from our first ancestors. So any volunteer can quickly find that knack, that basic urge to build.” Trees are natural architects, too, and much of the charm of Dougherty’s designs comes from letting them drive the development of the work as it unfolds. The end results are organic, undulating, clearly fabricated yet oddly natural--and intimately reflected of the surrounding landscape.

Duke Gardens executive director Bill LeFevre approached Dougherty several years ago with a proposal to bring his artistry to the Gardens. As the project date drew closer, they agreed upon an ideal location. When the work began, LeFevre and Gardens staff members enthusiastically signed up for opportunities to play a hands-on role.

“We are thrilled and thankful to have the opportunity to work with Patrick Dougherty and his team to create this site-specific work of art in Duke Gardens,” said LeFevre, whose shifts with Dougherty left him somewhat scratched up but also energized and inspired.

“We collected thousands of saplings from Duke Forest, and now we all get to play a role in bending them into Patrick’s emerging vision for the piece,” he said. “I hope visitors will enjoy witnessing this process of creation.”

Dougherty explains his techniques to
staff members who will assist.
Photo by Orla Swift.
Like the forests that spawned them, these sculptures cannot be built in one day—three weeks from start to finish is typical for Dougherty’s constructions. The ongoing process of installation is both an opportunity for the community to interact and participate and a piece of performance art in itself. Once the sculpture is complete, time and the elements will help dictate how long it will remain, but Dougherty’s sculptures typically stay standing for a couple of years.

So, what is it exactly taking shape on the South Lawn? It’s a castle. It’s a forest. It’s a home for elves. It’s a photo opportunity. It’s a chance to get in touch with nature again or an inspiration to build a tree fort of your own at home. Or perhaps it’s none of those things at all for you.  But one thing is for certain: whether you’re involved with the construction or just passing through, Dougherty’s work is likely to intrigue and engage you.

Katherine Hale is an intern in the Blomquist Garden of Native Plants at Duke Gardens and a graduate student in the Field Naturalist program at the University of Vermont. 

Read more about Patrick Dougherty and his work in the latest issue of Garden & Gun magazine.

Update: Below is the finished sculpture, in a photo by Rick Fisher.  You can read more about it in our 2017 Flora Magazine.