On March 3rd, the SAB had the great pleasure of welcoming artist Patrick Dougherty to campus to give a talk about his internationally showcased body of artworks. He creates large and ephemeral environmental sculptures crafted from tree saplings and twigs. True to his humble character, he sometimes refers to his pieces as “stickworks”, which while technically accurate, belies their scale and intricacy. Patrick’s sculptures are stunning creations, which include massive swirling wall motifs, as well as freestanding structures often large enough for many adults (and children) to stand inside them at once. The branches of the tree saplings are interwoven to create domed towers and billowing enclosures whose curved architecture is designed in harmony with the topography of the encompassing landscape.
We were instantly fascinated by these unusual and striking artworks that demand to be not just viewed, but actively explored by walking through them. This interactive quality adds another dimension to the experience of these art pieces, and so we were eager to hear from the artist himself what inspires him, how he creates these incredible structures, and how people all over the world view and engage with his works.
In his presentation at the Princeton University Art Museum, Patrick described his artistic process: after being commissioned to create a sculpture for a specific purpose and in a specific place, he visits the area and acquaints himself with the surroundings, which serve as his inspiration and are key to defining what he will build. For example, in the town of Chateaubourg, France, he was inspired to construct over life-sized wine bottle-shaped towers based on the local prominence of wine. In Tallaght, Ireland, he took inspiration from the architecture of Irish churches in his construction of a beautiful tower-like structure. Thus, local features and histories from all over the world have been embedded into Patrick’s sculptures. He never creates the same piece twice (unless this is expressly requested of him), and so each artwork is unique and reflects his experiences and understanding of the area where the piece resides.
After he finds his inspiration, Patrick proceeds to use the space he is given to set up his piece of art, oftentimes making use of trees or buildings to integrate into and help support his “stickwork”. But unlike most artworks that solely rely on either the artist, or on the artist and a team of specialists to produce them, these structures very much depend on the active participation of the larger community. For every structure that he builds, Patrick enlists the help of a new group of local volunteers to work with him to realize his creative vision. And so these pieces that are inspired by the region also become community initiatives, engaging local people and bringing them together to make art that is both by and for the community.
It takes three weeks to construct one of Patrick’s environmental sculptures. In his presentation to us, he acknowledged often feeling like a bit of an outsider when first beginning a project. Since he recruits local people to help, he is the sole newcomer, and he must integrate himself into the group while also leading the construction project and providing the guiding artistic vision for the finished work. This process comes with some unique challenges as Patrick confronts a variety of ideas, emotions, expectations, and group identities. He finds that many people are initially a bit skeptical, but also curious. Over the course of the construction project, he observes how the group dynamics change and he gets to know people and becomes accepted as part of the team that he created. And finally, the time comes when he has to end his working relationship and move on to the next. As such, Patrick is like an anthropologist, observing and carefully studying people under the guise of an artist.
After Patrick moves on, the community still has their collective work to remember him by, as well as a spectacular piece of art that invites even more community members to come together to share in the experience. Patrick’s works are broadly accessible, and it is a common sight to see adults strolling through them, and children playing in them.
We were fortunate to welcome Patrick into our own community here at Princeton, where in addition to his presentation, he spent time talking with students and discussing his art as well as the broader reception of art and its power to connect people and bring them together. His visit to Princeton also proved to be a reunion of sorts, since he ran into several people whom he had worked with in the past. And so while Patrick must often say goodbye to the friends he meets in the course of his work in order to move on to his next project, it is clear that those bonds remain intact and that they span the globe, demonstrating that the production of art is one that fuses people together and creates lasting experiences.