Artist turns sticks into sculpture

Patrick Dougherty, a sculptor who weaves tree saplings into whirling, animated shapes that resemble tumbleweeds or gusts of wind, likes to say that his first artwork was his house.

Built from old barn timber, fallen trees and rocks he dug from the ground, this rangy log villa started off as a one-room cabin and is his only permanent work (most of his installations break down after a year or two in the wild).

He was 28 and in the Air Force, working in hospital and health administration, when he bought this 10-acre "farmette," as he put it, for $10,000.

"I had decided I was kind of a log-cabin frontier person," said Dougherty, who is now 65, and an ebullient and rapid speaker whose sentences unfurl and coil around one another like vines. "My dream was to build a house. I didn't realize my real dream, my subcurrent, was to become a sculptor."

Fired up by the Foxfire books, the how-to guides for the '70s-era back-to-the-land movement, he would pore over the pages, practicing dovetails. "It was a passage, finding my way through a house and into a life," he said. "It was a real quest."

At 36, he went back to school, into the graduate art program at UNC Chapel Hill, 10 minutes away. His first stick work, a man-size tangle of saplings made on a picnic table at home, startled his professors, he said. They thought "it was too complete for someone who'd been blundering around in the netherworld."

Since then, he has made more than 200 pieces for sites all over the world - including dozens in North Carolina and Rock Hill - woolly lairs and wild follies, gigantic snares, nests and cocoons, some woven into groves of trees, others lashed around buildings. His hutlike maple and sweet gum sapling "Trail Heads" was a favorite in the N.C. Museum of Art park in Raleigh, and his wall-sized red maple branches "Out of the Box" is displayed prominently in the museum's new building.

Durham filmmakers Kenny Dalsheimer and Penelope Maunsell, who made a documentary on the popular 2006 Georges Rousse public art project in that city, have begun working on a Dougherty film. Arts enthusiast Frank Konhaus is executive producer and is leading a fundraising drive to finance the new documentary, titled "Bending Sticks."

Thirty-eight of Dougherty's works are collected in "Stickwork," a monograph-memoir published recently by Princeton Architectural Press. It's full of installation tales, like the time he camped in a Japanese temple while working on a piece and was warned by his host about the poisonous but sacred snakes there. "Don't kill them," Dougherty recalled the host saying. "If one bites you, call my wife and she will take you to the hospital."

Solving the problem

Dougherty is a good storyteller. And there is always a story, because each piece takes at least three weeks to make, blooms before a rapt and sometimes fractious audience, and depends on the efforts of a fresh team of volunteers new to stickwork, over which Dougherty presides like an enthusiastic Outward Bound leader.

"It's a problem-solving event, and problems arise every day," he said. "You have to be flexible. I like working with sticks, but it's really an excuse to have these experiences."

The book chronicles Dougherty's output of nine works a year, every year.

Love at first sight

Dougherty and his first wife divorced in 1985; their children are 40 and 33. He has been married for 18 years to Linda Johnson Dougherty, chief curator and curator of contemporary art at the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh. Their son, Sam, is 16.

They met when she was a curator at the Phillips Collection and invited Dougherty to take part in a show. "It was love at first sight," he said proudly.

Linda Dougherty has worked on only one of her husband's installations, at an urban park in a tough neighborhood in Manchester, England.

The most loyal spectator was a local character known as Bingo Billy. He arrived the first day with his lawn chair and stayed for the entire three weeks. Patrick Dougherty recalled: "At one point, a woman came up to me and said, 'I see you've got Bingo Billy. I hope you're not giving him money.' I said, 'I sure am. I pay him a pound a day not to say anything.'"

'He never sat down'

Still, Linda Dougherty seems tolerably flexible. When she moved into the cabin, it had grown to two rooms; she described winter mornings running back and forth between them when Sam was a baby, lighting fires in both rooms. Patrick Dougherty has since installed central heating. Sam has his own room. The screened porch is newish; another room is growing off the living room.

Standing in front of the house, you could see the outline of the original one-room cabin, like a child's drawing sketched onto a proper house.

"You can see I'm flexible," Patrick Dougherty said. "I've had to be. For a long time, I only owned two pairs of pants. A good pair and a bad pair. She bought me two more pairs."

"I also made him buy a couch," Linda Dougherty said. "He didn't know he didn't have one, because he never sat down."