Brushstrokes: A year in the career of stick artist Patrick Dougherty

10/18/2013 3:43 PM

10/18/2013 3:48 PM

While Penelope Maunsell was taking her daughter to camp at the Durham Arts Council she saw a stick sculpture by Patrick Dougherty on exhibit there.

“It knocked my socks off,” said Maunsell, a Durham filmmaker.

Soon after, Maunsell was up in Lincoln, Mass. “There was a Patrick piece there too. He had wrapped an entire museum in sticks,” Maunsell said. “I thought ‘I have to meet this guy.’”

She did not have far to go. She rang up Dougherty, who invited her to his Orange County home.

This was 25 years ago when Dougherty was a novice sculptor just starting to use tree saplings as his medium.

Maunsell knew she had to make a film about this unusual artist, but she did not know how to raise the money for it and the documentary idea gathered dust.

Now through Nov. 7, viewers can see an exhibit of photographs of Dougherty’s work at Bull City Arts Collaborative, 401 Foster St. in Durham, that celebrates the release of the DVD of the film “Bending Sticks: The Sculpture of Patrick Dougherty.”

The 10 large-format photographs of Dougherty installations around the world were taken by various photographers. This is a show that would be fantastic to share with children, who perhaps even better than adults, instinctively understand the beauty, mystery, and magic of Dougherty’s structures.

“It is not some art that some people don’t get,” said Kenny Dalsheimer, who curated the show and co-directed the film. “I think Patrick’s work casts a pretty wide net.”

In December 2009, Maunsell approached Dalsheimer and Frank Konhaus with her dusted-off idea of making a film about Dougherty. The trio had just completed a documentary called “Bending Space, Georges Rousse and the Durham Project.”

“When we got through making ‘Bending Space,’ I thought ‘I need to make this film about Patrick,” Maunsell said. “One of the things that I like about Georges’ work is that he spends all his effort to create pieces and then he does not care when it falls apart.”

“Patrick’s work is the same. It is temporary. The outside pieces last about two years if you are lucky, and Patrick does not care. I think that is extraordinary and interesting, and so the only way people can see it after it disintegrates is through the film.”

Dougherty spent the first part of his professional life working in hospital and health administration.

“But l liked making things,” he said. So in the early ’80s he began taking sculpture and art history classes at UNC-Chapel Hill, where he had gotten his bachelor’s degree in English in 1967. “Then I decided that my best course was to build a studio and get to work. If you last long enough you end up where you are supposed to be.”

In his classes, Dougherty was mainly working with clay, but he did not like the processing of it.

“Just on a whim I started using saplings,” he said. “I would often start a piece without thinking about their importance and make up the reasons later why I had done what I did.”

As he has grown in his career, Dougherty says he has realized or developed its relevance.

“We play with sticks when we are children,” he said. “You have huge associations with them. It was fertile ground to make work that had to do with saplings and somewhat about simple shelter.”

“Bending Sticks,” which was completed in 2012, follows Dougherty for a year as he completes five installations, including a large wall sculpture for the N.C. Museum of Art.

His hands, which he says are directly connected to his emotions, pick, carry, and manipulate saplings, and demonstrate to his volunteers how to proceed. Dalsheimer enjoyed being able to provide close-ups of Dougherty’s hands in action. “There is a micro-perspective that is really cool that changes the perspective of the human eye, since the camera can move in on things you don’t normally see,” he said.

Maunsell commissioned a song for the documentary inspired by the fact that even as Dougherty is driving his car, he is scouting for saplings to use in his work. The song’s first line is “Keep your eyes on the road.”

“We miss him,” Maunsell said. I want to go on following him just for fun.”

Deborah R. Meyer writes each month about the arts. Contact her at


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