Patrick Dougherty is a tree hugger and a tree bender.
On average, he’s built about 10 stick structures a year for the last 25 years, with each taking him about three weeks apiece to construct. His latest work of art, a nearly 35-foot-by-25-foot, multi-room castle-like structure, is being put together on East Tennessee State University’s campus with the help of students and volunteers. And while Dougherty loves the final product, what he enjoys most is the time spent talking with the people who help him.
“It’s the relationship between the people and nature,” Dougherty said of the project, and what makes it special. He calls his work Stickwork, which is the title of his new book. He will be offering a talk on his art form at the Martha Street Culp Auditorium at 7 p.m. Monday. He says he’s lucky enough to be a full-time artist, more specifically a sculptor.
When Dougherty learned he was going to be working on the ETSU campus, he scoped out multiple locations and settled on the very visible spot just behind the administrative building, Burgin Dossett Hall, on the Stout Drive circle in front of Gilbreath Hall.
It’s just bending sticks, he said, and it’s a bit repetitive at times, but what changes is the time he gets to spend with the student volunteers who help him build his world-famous structures. There were eight volunteers on hand to help Friday afternoon, but Dougherty said the volunteer help is cyclical, and about 75 will ultimately help build the finished product.
Inga Sarkodie, 22, an English and digital media student at ETSU, is used to using her hand and the click of a mouse to edit her work on the computer, but was working on Dougherty’s project doing just the opposite. She was bending saplings into place around one of the windows of the rooms, and enjoying herself because of how relaxing it was.
She said she learned about Stickwood structures when she watched a documentary on Dougherty’s stick-bending and thought it was impressive. Now, she does it, and it helps remind her of her childhood.
Originally from Belarus, Sarkodie said she used to spend time at her grandparents’ house, which was in the middle of the stick-filled woods.
“It reminds me of my childhood,” she said.
These kinds of experiences are what interests Dougherty about having student workers help him in the construction side of the work. He said everyone has some kind of story that helps them put a piece of themselves into their work. The currently unnamed structure will be built by students with different education backgrounds and pursuits, and will be used by different classes and programs on campus.
Anita DeAngelis, director of the Mary B. Martin School of Arts, said how exciting it was to have such a variety of interested parties wanting to use the structure. She said there’s been interest from dance and bluegrass classes, among others.
Dougherty is used to that sort of thing and he said his structures have been wedding venues, as well as a birthing site, too. His art has been featured in France, Hawaii, Australia, Korea, Hungry, Scotland and Brussels. The medium is just as important as the subject for Dougherty, and it all depends on where he’s putting together a structure. Using what’s available has always been the easiest way to go about construction, and he also helped handpick the saplings, which were also harvested by ETSU.
The one requirement of his saplings have been their flexibility, and he has made good use of the local maple, ash and hickory trees.
As for a name for his ETSU structure, he’s still waiting for a suggestion or the proper name to hit him. He enjoys the way students and faculty look at it as they pass by.
One student who did just that was Sam Arnold, an 18-year-old chemistry student from Campbell County.
“I don’t know what it is,” Arnold said. “I walked by a few times and it caught my eye, and wondered what it was. It looks like a big wooden fort.”
Arnold hit the nail on the head, although you won’t find any nails in this twister wood art project. It’s a wooden fort that has evolved a great deal from the wooden forts that Dougherty made as a child. Dougherty says those forts were “hovels” compared to the works of art he produces now, but again, it’s as simple as bending sticks.
For more information on Dougherty and Stickwork, check out the artist’s website at www.stickwork.net.