Artist Patrick Dougherty Brings Sticks to Life

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Photo by Bruce DeBoer



“I always thought I’d build a log cabin,” says renowned international sculptor Patrick Dougherty, who pieces together tree saplings to create whimsical shapes that appear as if they’re being blown by whirling breezes. “I like to think my house was my first foray into art.”

This house in Chapel Hill launched Dougherty’s long career dabbling in timber and carpentry. Old barn wood and dug-up stones provided the foundation for his first “masterpiece” that would become his home. Upon its completion, Dougherty made his way back to the University of North Carolina, his alma mater, to complete two years of art courses. From there, Dougherty felt the tug to become a sculptor. “I only had one house in me, but I had a lot of sculptures in me.” 

Since the early 1980s, Dougherty has experimented with saplings thanks to their plentiful nature in North Carolina. But his work is not limited to the Tar Heel State. He has also created sculptures in all other U.S. states and a dozen foreign countries. To gather the materials he needs for each masterpiece, he follows behind loggers to cut down new maple and sweetgum sprouts, knowing the loggers eagerly want them gone since the sprouts compete with new pine crops. “Once I got going with that material, I realized there was a deep history of using saplings for basket making and all indigenous work,” Dougherty says. “And that’s really our past, too. People had to use whatever was available.” 

Transforming native North Carolina saplings and brush into sculptures establishes Dougherty as an expert in using the land to breathe life into its landscape and scenery. Growing up in Southern Pines, Dougherty spent much of his childhood exploring the verdant countryside, building forts in the woods, and fantasizing about mazes and houses in the bushes. This imagery resurfaces in Dougherty’s artwork, which intertwines nature and imagination to create enchanting worlds where mesmerizing sculptures captivate the eye and soul. 

Dougherty and his son, Sam, stand in front of “Southern Comforts” (2021) in Lenoir, which was sponsored by the Patterson School Foundation. Photo by Alistair Burke.

Connecting Viewers to the Environment

Guided by instinct and a deep understanding of natural materials, Dougherty weaves and molds sculptures into large-scale installations that blend seamlessly with their surroundings. Twigs, branches and saplings become the building blocks of his creations, which seem to grow effortlessly from the earth, as if they were always there. 

Dougherty carefully selects the locations for his sculptures within the Triangle’s urban and natural landscapes, transforming public spaces, parks and gardens into ethereal realms. His art not only adds aesthetic beauty, but sparks a profound connection between viewers and the environment as well.

A defining aspect of Dougherty’s work is his collaborative approach to the creative process. Before he begins, he makes a site visit to discover what is available so he can draw inspiration from the land. “Oftentimes a word or feeling comes to you, and you begin to go off that,” Dougherty says. “Each time I come up with an idea.”

In Happy Valley, a rural site in Lenoir north of Charlotte, Dougherty constructed a windblown creation, titled “Southern Comforts,” from North Carolina maple and willow. 

It resembles a cluster of Japanese jars leaning into each other beneath a tall grove of pine trees. The project’s purpose was “reinvigoration” of the Patterson School Foundation, an historic agricultural school founded in 1909. He accomplished this by creating a symbolic image representative of the school’s rich history with the surrounding landscape. 

Similarly, Dougherty’s consideration of the community largely influenced his “Fly Away Home” sculpture at Carpenter Park in Cary. The project, featuring 10,000 pounds of willow saplings carefully woven together like tumbleweed, focused primarily on evoking personal associations that call forth the viewer’s nostalgic feelings of childhood and youth. 

“We knew a lot of kids would play in it because the work was going to be situated in a public park,” Dougherty says. This influenced his decision to build the whimsical structure of winding rooms with large open doors and windows—establishing the work as a natural playground for both the young and old. 

Dougherty stands in front of “Out of the Box” at the North Carolina Museum of Art. Photo by Bruce DeBoer.

Imaginative Inspirations

Dougherty embraces a community spirit by often inviting volunteers to assist in the construction process. By involving others in the creation of his whirling sculptures, he fosters a sense of ownership and collective pride, nurturing a deeper connection between people and art. 

“I want to build something that’s going to cause people to come running,” Dougherty affirms. “Everyone knows this material and can connect with it.” When reflecting on his sculptures as a whole, Dougherty fervently desires for his work to reflect nature and the world within which they are built. “When you use the sticks as though they are tapered lines, like you see in a drawing, you get a sense of motion and animation there,” he says. “And that makes you feel like you know what nature is like. It’s about flow and movement. So it gives a sense of enlivenment to the sculptures.”

Furthermore, he hopes these works “stir the imagination.” While Dougherty is fueled by the shapes, textures and patterns he encounters in nature, he is also eager to inspire the public. “We never had a time where the work failed to resonate with the community in which it sat,” Dougherty says proudly. Intricate networks of branches mimic the complexity of human relationships, while graceful arches evoke a sense of wonder and invitation. His sculptures capture the fleeting beauty of the natural world, reminding viewers of the impermanence and resilience of life itself.

Dougherty’s artistic genius intertwines enchantment with diverse landscapes across the state, country and world. Through his imaginative use of natural materials, he creates sculptures that speak to the inherent beauty of the environment and our connection to it. By blending art with nature, Dougherty invites onlookers to pause, reflect and appreciate the wonders that surround us. His legacy as a sculptor and advocate for the harmony between art and the environment will continue to inspire generations to come. 

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