On Nov. 15, I visited Patrick Dougherty’s most recent installation, “A Sight To Behold,” on the Riverwalk in Hillsborough.
There’s something about Dougherty’s art that catches your eye, then holds it there. For one thing, his works are made entirely of sticks. From such a simple medium, he creates swooping, curving, soaring masterpieces (his tallest sculpture reaches nearly 40 feet) that are reminiscent of the spiraling sky in Van Gogh’s “The Starry Night.”
Impressively enough, Dougherty doesn’t plan his sculptures until he’s seen the installation sites. Then his mind gets to work. If he decides to sketch something out, it doesn’t happen until one or two days before the installation is set to begin – and even then, he likes to leave it to instinct. “I make a drawing, and when I start working, I just throw the drawing away,” he said.
In the hour that I was there, I watched him make on-the-spot decisions about the way certain sticks might curve on a certain part of the dome, stepping in to smooth out the oval edges of a window or the inside of an alcove. The process was intuitive and organic, the sculpture almost growing from the earth itself, wrapping around trees and scaffolding as it climbed.
The only other Dougherty work I’ve seen, “Homegrown,” stands in the N.C. Botanical Garden. This summer, my friend and I explored “Homegrown” with the childlike curiosity of 5-year-olds, ducking between the intertwined sticks into the shadows, peering out the circular windows, watching the light sift, stripe-like, through the woven walls.
Dougherty told me that he decided to work in sticks because they are a vessel for imagination, an endless host of possibility.
“For kids, (sticks) are a world,” he said.
He wanted his art to forge a powerful connection between audience and sculpture: for children, another place to explore, conquer, dream; for older viewers, a reversion to this younger state of opportunity and constant discovery, the flicker of a fond memory, pretending to be princesses or pirates or dragons.
At the same time, his works only have a lifespan of about two years. It’s a balance between ephemerality and timelessness, of preserving a happy childhood afternoon – but not forever.
“A Sight To Behold” brought me back to my first-grade days, when I used to run around my neighborhood with friends before the sunset. I watched Dougherty work for an hour, and in my mind, I was 6 again, sprawled across my driveway, designing elaborate mazes in chalk. I was jumping from rock to dirt patch to swing in my backyard – “the ground is lava!” I was exploring the underside of our back porch, hoping (and simultaneously terrified) that I would find something really dangerous, like a black widow or a snake. I was at the top of the playground castle, declaring myself king of all the land.
For an hour, I was a child again. No homework, no college applications, no future to worry about – just a child, picking up a stick for the first time, about to become a superhero.
Veronica Kim attends Durham Academy. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.