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Stick Shelters

Patrick Dougherty weaves sapling branches of different tree species into intricate and ethereal sculptures.

By Alanna Malone
March 01, 2013
Dougherty constructed Diamonds in the Rough for the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, Virginia, in May 2011. Mixed hardwood saplings were gathered on an area maintained by the Virginia Forestry Service that was due for thinning. Dougherty created 11 diamond-shaped elements, which stood together in a grid. Numerous pathways gave visitors a chance to explore the interlocking configuration. The sculpture was disassembled in February 2013.
Photo courtesy Don Williamson
Dougherty constructed Diamonds in the Rough for the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, Virginia, in May 2011. Mixed hardwood saplings were gathered on an area maintained by the Virginia Forestry Service that was due for thinning. Dougherty created 11 diamond-shaped elements, which stood together in a grid. Numerous pathways gave visitors a chance to explore the interlocking configuration. The sculpture was disassembled in February 2013.

"Sticks have an infuriating tendency to entangle with each other," explains Patrick Dougherty. "It is this simple tangle that holds my work together." He has been crafting environmental sculptures from tree saplings for over 30 years. Based in Chapel Hill, North Carolina, Dougherty works all over the world, creating eight to 10 large pieces a year. Each sculpture takes about three weeks to complete and lasts for up to two years.

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His construction technique is a layering process. The first step is to harvest saplings—usually with the help of local volunteers—which are then secured into the ground as a structural base. Next, Dougherty pulls piles of smaller, pliant saplings through the structural supports, building up a surface of tangled and twisted branches. Finally, he reworks problematic areas with very small sticks to cover up blemishes. "With branches and saplings the line between trash and treasure is very thin, and the sculptures, like the sticks they are made from, begin to fade after two years," he says.

Environmental sensitivity is, of course, a major concern when harvesting saplings. Permission is required, and members of sponsoring organizations often secure this through community outreach. The saplings are often gathered from maintained or salvage areas and land slated for development. Dougherty prefers willow, maple, gum, and elm, but uses other varieties periodically.

"Our contemporary challenge is how to reconnect and live in harmony with the plants and animals that still share the earth," he explains. "Sculptures from twigs and other kinds of environmental initiatives are helping with that awareness."

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