Inspiration: The Work of Patrick Dougherty

Back in 2007, I was working on a couple of projects in West Hollywood that had me cruising down Melrose Ave a couple of times a day. The highlight of the drive was invariably the little stretch of road west of La Cienega past the Max Azria store.  What had been done to the facade of that store was both arresting and completely delightful.  Sometimes I would look for a parking spot with a good view of it, and sit and eat my lunch in my car while gazing at it and day-dreaming.


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So began my obsession with the artist, Patrick Dougherty, a sculptor whose medium is saplings!

“Peacock feathers”, “paisley” and “Van Gogh’s Starry Night “ – these are some of the things that I’ve read people said when describing the pattern above, and I would agree that the branches evoked all those things and more.

In an interview I watched, Dougherty said that he thought a good sculpture “causes lots of personal associations in people”. For me, the Max Azria installation made me think of the English countryside where I went to boarding school. I remember how stunned I was by the landscape at certain times of the year, dotted with neatly rolled-up hay bales. It made me feel like I was looking at an Impressionist painting, come to life.

This is a contemporary painting of the kind of setting I mean, (albeit one in Italy, rather than England).

Umbria Hay Bales by Lyn Farrelly

 Daugherty’s installation made me imagine a landscape of hay bales, let loose by a crazy windstorm!

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Although this gorgeous sheathing of willow branches is no longer there, in my memory this remains the most fantastic storefront of all time. Thankfully, Daugherty is always hard at work, installing huge, elaborate sculptures made out of sticks all over the world.


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Call of the Wild at the Museum of Glass in Tacoma, Washington, 2002-2003

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Running In Circles at the TICKON Sculpture Park in Denmark, 1996-1998

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Paradise Gate at Smith College in Northampton, Massachusetts, 2001


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Holy Rope  at the Rinjyo-in Temple in Chiba,  Japan, 1992-1994

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Nine Lives at the Franklin Park Conservatory in Columbus, Ohio,  2006-2007

Although Dougherty had a life-long love of nature and building things, it wasn’t until he was a grad student in his late thirties that he started sculpting out of saplings. In the thirty or so years since, he has completed over 200 installations.

In an essay from Stickwork, a recent monograph of the artist’s work, Jennifer Thompson writes, “In exchange for a stipend, vehicle, lodging and meals, a stick creation is born from the site, saplings, and Dougherty’s imagination.  Drawing from culture, mythology, history, science , literature, and dreams, Dougherty creates from scratch structures that are at once willowy and robust.”

The saplings that Dougherty’s uses vary, depending on whatever  is being cleared locally in relation to his given site.  Willow and maple are apparently very well suited to sculpture, but Dougherty has also worked with dogwood, alder, bamboo and more.

Each work takes about three weeks to install, and involves a whole team of local volunteers.

The installations are sturdy, but being organic, they might change with the seasons and are ultimately ephemeral.  Some might be allowed to fade back into nature, while others are incorporated into actual buildings and removed after a given period.

I love the way the following two “encroach” on architecture.


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Easy Does It at the Hollywood Art & Culture Center  in Florida, 1998

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Crossing Over at the American Craft Museum in NYC, 1996

I have to admire Dougherty, not only for his incredible imagination and artistic gifts, but for his apparent ability to teach and lead.  It is obviously very physical work, bending these saplings to his visions.  The fact that the artist continually keeps teams of unpaid, inexperienced people enthusiastically on board alongside him for three weeks at a time is a testament to the camaraderie that I imagine he fosters in his work environment.  It would take not only commitment, but patience and humor.

In one article I found, a woman called Patrice Sutton who worked on Dougherty’s 2009 installation, Summer Palace, at the Morris Arboretum in Pennsylvannia, described the experience of working with the artist.

“He is so passionate about what he does that it became contagious. Working on this was like getting a Christmas present. You know it’s coming, but you have to wait for it.”

“He has such a great method of working, it’s like no one is ever really wrong . He works with you and really makes you feel like an artist too.”

Last summer, a short trip to New York had to include a visit to the Brooklyn Botanical Garden to see Dougherty’s  Natural History installation, which he envisioned as “lairs for feral children and wayward adults”.

My feral child thought it was as wonderful as I did.


Do you ever get the feeling, when you’re walking away from a piece of art, that you don’t want to leave it? Even if you’re lucky enough to be able to take pictures of it, you wish you could just be in its presence whenever you felt like it. So it was for me with Dougherty’s Natural History. Now that I look at these pictures, the installation makes me think of a herd of baby woolly mammoths, communing!

If you’re curious about Patrick Dougherty’s process, there are lots of great time-lapse videos of the artist assembling his installations on his web-site and on You Tube.  You can watch a short one here, showing his Diamonds In The Rough installation at the Lewis Ginter Botanical Garden in Richmond, VA in 2011.


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 Diamonds In The Rough, Richmond, VA 2011

To learn more about Patrick Dougherty and his work,  visit his web-site, buy his book, Stickwork, and read this wonderful 2010 profile of him from the New York Times.  And stay tuned for a feature-length documentary about the artist that is in the works. I can’t wait to see it!!

Dougherty’s web-site also shows the many places where his current and upcoming installations are located, because nothing could be better than seeing his work in person. I personally wish I could teleport myself over to look at what he does in Domaine de Chaumont-sur-Loire in France and Federation Square in Melbourne, Australia later this year!







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