In Pease Park, Patrick Dougherty Constructs a Wooden Wonder
The environmental artist sticks the landing
Spied from a distance, the five structures in Pease Park look as if several thousand saplings mutually decided to weave themselves into shelters for weary hike-and-bike trail joggers. You see no evidence of human hands in their construction; they look to be wholly the work of nature, of young trees just intertwining their trunks to form walls and roofs, while leaving openings as doorways and windows. It makes these structures both enchanting and enchanted, like something discovered in the woods of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale, and it draws you to them with the same awe you'd have felt when you were 6. And up close, walking into them, they feel no less magical, because they still don't look man-made.
Not to spoil the illusion, but these wooden wonders are man-made, and the man who did the making is Patrick Dougherty. Building these structures is what he does. They're more rightly considered sculptures, and Dougherty reckons the little cluster he spent January erecting in Pease Park to be his 288th. Before 2018 is out, the North Carolina artist will have added another 10 to that number, in spots as far-flung as Murrells Inlet, S.C.; Tulsa, Okla.; Bowling Green, Ky.; and Big Sky, Mont. He's devoted 30 years to erecting these environmental art objects – for which he's coined the term Stickwork – all over the planet. In every spot, the work is made entirely of sticks and saplings and has that same wild, organic aspect, but they might look like bowers or huts or gigantic tilting pitchers or even Easter Island-sized heads. Because Dougherty tailors each sculpture to its site, the sizes and shapes vary, as do the materials, which he draws from local sources. For Austin's Stickwork project, commissioned by the Pease Park Conservancy, the artist settled on a spot in Custer's Meadow, far enough from the traffic on Lamar to be somewhat hidden yet close enough to the trail that the work could be easily seen from it. He kept its height to about a dozen feet so the structures would nestle under the trees there, but gave them enough volume to look "pretty substantial from a distance," he says. Something about the space suggested grand religious architecture, but with the low trees and just three weeks to finish the piece (the standard time frame for a Stickwork project), he couldn't fully follow through on the impulse. "We've been saying, 'We wanted to make a cathedral, but we only got to the corners,'" the artist jokes.
Though Dougherty starts with a sense of direction for the work, he allows room for it to evolve as construction progresses. "As you're working, you're looking, you're gauging," he says. "You build one piece, then you build other pieces in relationship to that piece, so there's a greater feeling of companionship among these things. We wanted something that looked like it fit in the space, that maybe looked like it had already been here. Give it a bit of uncertainty about its origins." So that element of enchantment is embedded in the work? "I always feel that my job is to excite peoples' imaginations," says Dougherty.
Once people are excited mentally by his work, the artist wants them to engage with it physically: to walk around it, touch it, move through it, jump through its windows if they feel the urge. "We wanted these openings because [the sculpture is] advertising itself. If people are inside and you see them flitting around, then you think you can go in there. The great thing about this kind of work is that people have an inherent sense of what it is and how to use it. Permission is all that's required."
Dougherty gives that permission freely, even during construction. "One of the nice things about the way I work is I work in public and I don't have any doors to close, so the normal users of the space get to enjoy the project during the building process. We've been baptizing it, having kids come run through it and see what they think. You never want to lead the way and say, 'Don't you think it looks good?' Even though your sponsors will lie to you and say it looks good, the public is unforgiving, so you don't get by with anything. If they don't like it, they tell you right upfront. Luckily for us, they've been telling us they do like it."
The thumbs-up from the public is a relief, considering all that's gone into the sculpture that Dougherty's titled Yippee Ki Yay: some 10 tons of ligustrum, Roosevelt willow, and ash (much of it from the ranch of Andrew and Nona Sansom and other area parks), which volunteers and Austin Tree Experts staff, along with Dougherty and his son Sam, gathered, stripped of leaves, and bound together. ("Sticks will entangle with each other easily, and it's that infuriating tendency to tangle that we're using as the simplest method of joining," Dougherty says.) It's also been coated with fire retardant, and the Conservancy will be checking the sculpture weekly for damage and making any needed repairs for as long as it lasts. (Dougherty says, "Usually, you get two good years out of [a Stickwork project]. One great year, one pretty good year.") When Yippee Ki Yay starts to fade, Austin Tree Experts will come chip it, and the Stickwork's remains will be used as mulch in the park.
Based on his time building it, Dougherty expects the sculpture to be seen by lots of folks. "I'm sure people from the Pease Park Conservancy have done counts as to how many people come through here, but if you're here for eight hours, you are impressed. I mean, it's like water pouring through here. In a single moment, you see 10 people, but over a full day, it is amazing how many people use the park."
That's rewarding for the artist making his first work here. "Austin has been good to Sam and me, and we really appreciate it. I've always wanted to come to Austin. People here have an elevated sense of consciousness about art and music and so forth, so it's good to come into a place where you feel like the rest of your family lives."
The Pease Park Conservancy will unveil Yippee Ki Yay in a public event Sat., Feb. 10, 1-3pm, in Pease Park at 2201 Parkway. See more info at www.peasepark.org.
For a gallery of images of Yippee Ki Yay, go to austinchronicle.com/photos.