‘I helped build this!” I crow to family, friends, and, yes, complete strangers who happen to be visiting Patrick Dougherty’s monumental stick sculpture on the front lawn of Highfield Hall & Gardens. Dubbed “A Passing Fancy,” the 50-by-35-foot, 17-foot-tall installation is a warren of doors, windows, and secret passageways made of woven branches that evokes a through-the-looking-glass feel.
Granted, my contribution was small — infinitesimal would be overstating it. I was one of some 60 Cape Cod residents who signed up to work on the sculpture for a four-hour shift under Dougherty’s direction over 21 days in June. My job, near the end of the project, was to weave in branches wherever I could see too much daylight or detect the structural underpinnings of the sculpture.
“Pay attention to directionality,” Dougherty told me. Turns out saplings have thick ends and thin ends, and it’s important to weave them so that they all point in the same direction; it creates a sense of movement and draws the eye up. It was not delicate work. My co-workers and I had to jam our sticks around millions of other sticks and drive them in hard enough so they would not dislodge in wind, rain, or snow.
Over the last 30 years Dougherty has completed more than 250 stick sculptures, or “stickworks,” all over the world, and involving community volunteers is a hallmark of his process. It not only harnesses a valuable labor supply, it also reflects his populist view of art. “You give plenty of starting points with the objects that you make so that people can bring their own experience to it,” he says. “It’s a little bit about beauty, but also about fun.” (He insists he doesn’t come back at night and redo all the volunteers’ work.)
On the job site, Dougherty is everywhere: wielding a rake, pushing a wheelbarrow, instructing volunteers, greeting visitors, thanking people for stopping by, inviting curious onlookers to explore the sculpture. “Take it for a test drive,” he urges in his throaty voice with a touch of Southern drawl. “I always feel like the viewer is part of the conversation,” he explains later. “Without viewers I don’t know if I would work or whether I would care. . . . The sculpture has a place — it’s doing stuff, it’s bringing people together, challenging them about what they think art is.”
Dougherty came late to his profession, from an unlikely field. After working in hospital administration, he returned to college in his mid-30s to study art history at the University of North Carolina. There he discovered his passion, an art form that combines sculpture, carpentry, and nature. In the 1980s, he said, many artists abandoned galleries to work in outdoor settings. “This gave people like me the freedom to say, ‘Why should we have to go the normal route?’ But if you don’t have a gallery, you’d better make work that everyone likes.”
“A Passing Fancy” was built with 10 tons of willow saplings from a nursery in upstate New York. Each installation is site specific, as Dougherty seeks a resonance between “these little small sticks” and the surrounding landscape. At Highfield, a restored 1878 Stick-style mansion ringed by gardens, his starting point was leaves and their vein patterns, an idea that morphed into a fleur-de-lis design. The finished configuration has a strong center ridge with tendrils branching off, providing seven “rooms” for visitors to explore. He credits the distinctive “rolled top,” which resembles piping on a cushion or the “lip” on a piece of blown glass, to his son Sam. A potter by trade, Sam Dougherty assists his father on every installation.
Perched on a ladder, volunteer Tammy Depolo of Mashpee said the work was a little harder than she expected, but she was glad to be a part of it. Patricia Gadsby of Woods Hole found the process of placing each stick in a precise spot oddly satisfying. “I like being engrossed in small tasks that require a lot of attention,” she said. “I guess I just like to do ‘fiddly’ things.”
Dougherty figures each of his living sculptures will last about two years. He has made his peace with the temporary nature of his art. “There’s an imaginative quality about temporary, something kind of beguiling,” he says. “And wouldn’t you rather have one idea presented, then take it down and get another idea, rather than have to live with the same metal sculpture out there forever? I like the idea of the changing of the guard.”
Highfield Hall & Gardens, 56 Highfield Drive, Falmouth, highfieldhallandgardens.org.Ellen Albanese can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.