by Coleen Dee Berry
What shape would Dougherty’s sculpture take? The environmental artist who bends and weaves sticks into art installations that resemble whimsical huts, dancing bottles and windswept castles, said even he wasn’t sure of the exact design until he began work at Wilson.
“It evolved from the first three days. Oftentimes you can’t take the full measure of a site until you’ve spent some time there,” Dougherty said. “Finding the right scale for the site is contingent on spending time there. Sometimes you find maybe you overthought things—you thought too big or too small. But we hit this right.”
Dougherty’s sculpture was introduced to the public during the rededication of the John Stewart Memorial Library on Oct. 23. Early that morning, Dougherty and volunteer workers were still putting the finishing touches on the piece. By the time visitors were gathering outside the library for the 11 a.m. rededication ceremony, they were greeted by the finished sculpture—a circular, sweeping structure with six tower-like peaks, arched entranceways and rounded pass-throughs that invite viewers into its surprisingly cozy interior.
The sculpture intentionally echoes the architecture of the library, Dougherty said. “The library was an important project for the College and it played a role in the imagery that we had with the sculpture,” he said. “There’s some mimicry, echoing the towers on the library. And I also imagined we had a wood scroll and we had two end pieces, and the reading part was in between. The scroll ends became the towers and the scroll became a flying wall.”
The name of the work was revealed in a ceremony later in the afternoon: A Walk on the Wild Side. The sculpture evokes “a sense of protection ... a sense of wonder and awe as we explore the pathways into and through the structure,” Professor of Fine Arts Philip Lindsey told a crowd gathered at the opening ceremony. “The work invites play and calls us back to our youth. It has the feel of a giant fort built in the forest, where grand adventures played out in childhood dramas. It feels safe; we want to wrap ourselves in those twisted willow saplings.”
Those exploring the sculpture enthusiastically agreed. One young girl seated herself inside on the floor of one of the tower rooms and announced to her parents, “This is where I want to have my next sleepover—right here in the castle!”
I love what children can see in these pieces and I hope the grownups can be inspired to their own flights of fancy. - Patrick Dougherty
That’s the sort of comment that makes Dougherty smile. “I love what children can see in these pieces and I hope the grownups can be inspired to their own flights of fancy,” he said.
Wilson President Barbara K. Mistick first saw one of Dougherty’s sculptures, Twisted Sisters, on the campus of Wheaton College in Norton, Mass., during a visit with her youngest daughter, who was a student there. Several years later in 2012, she encountered another Dougherty creation, Snake Hollow, on a trip with a friend to Bernheim Forest in Louisville, Ky., and was captivated by a group of delighted children who were playing in and around the sculpture.
“So I got back to Wilson and immediately called Dougherty’s assistant” to see if an installation at Wilson was possible, Mistick said. “I was told there was a waiting list of about three years and I said go ahead, put us down.”
“I think your president is very fond of me,” Dougherty said with a laugh. “And she saw the potential of having an artistic work on campus that would add to the world of ideas here.”
Mistick said when she called to book the installation, she had no inkling the project would coincide with the rededication of the library. “Patrick would say it must have been ordained to happen, but I truly didn’t plan it that way. As it turned out, the timing could not have been better,” Mistick said. “Artists have a great way of cluing into what a community needs and then giving it back to you. I feel like Patrick did that here at Wilson. He must have tapped into how important the library was to the campus.”
Having a creation by a world-renowned sculptor on campus is certainly a high point for Wilson. But the project also represents a coming together of college and community to create something worthy of celebration. Dougherty provides the artistic spark and direction, but volunteers play a key part in making his visions come to life. They help cut the sticks and assist Dougherty in building and weaving his sculptures.
“When I found out about the volunteer aspect, that made me all the more convinced it was a good project for Wilson,” Mistick said. She and several members of the College’s Board of Trustees were among the more than 100 volunteers who helped Dougherty build A Walk on the Wild Side.
Every day from Oct.5 until the sculpture was unveiled on Oct. 23, a crew of volunteers from both campus and the surrounding community arrived to assist Dougherty. Michael Hasco, a garden center nursery associate in Carlisle, used his vacation time to work with Dougherty nearly every day of the project. When he read about Dougherty coming to Wilson in a local newspaper, “I practically levitated because I was so excited about it,” Hasco said.
The work of bending and weaving sticks was demanding but rewarding, Hasco said. “Even though it’s been all-out, exhausting work, it’s not drudgery. It’s an enjoyment,” he said. ”What’s so interesting [is that] the president’s idea, her ethos from the College’s standpoint, is to bring the community together to make a oneness, and I think that’s exactly what this project has done. For me, it hasn’t been just about learning from Patrick. It’s been relating to all the other folks that I’ve met. You know them on a first-name basis now and when they come [together] it feels like a family. When this whole process is done, I’m going to feel a sense of loss.”
Barb Houpt, a fitness and wellness director at the Chambersburg YMCA, took three half-days off work and also spent a weekend working with Dougherty. “I wish I could be here more,” Houpt said during one of her shifts onsite. “I love it. This is incredible and an unbelievable opportunity because when’s this going to come to Chambersburg again?”
Faculty, staff and students also signed up to help. “It was a great way for students and faculty to work together for a common goal outside of the classroom,” said Theresa Hoover, assistant professor of education. “I found it fascinating to see an artist at work and watch how his vision came to life through community efforts.”
Student-athlete Keion Adams ’18 put in more than 30 hours of volunteer time with the project. “Working with Patrick was a great experience by itself,” Adams said. “He was always a joy to be around because he didn't see someone as only a volunteer, but as another person he could get to know.”
Board of Trustees member Jill Roberts 88 said she had no idea what to expect when she arrived for her volunteer shift. “Patrick quickly gave us the task involving selection, cutting and prepping of materials (saplings), without asking if we had any skill or aptitude,” she said. “I was afraid he might regret not having us do something simple like hold the ladder, but after a few minutes we felt right at home and that we were experts—and that was all Patrick. What an incredible guy—he asked all the volunteers to sign his gloves. How amazing that he wanted my signature!”
Like Hasco, Kerry Watson, a retiree from Chambersburg, worked almost every day on the project, beginning with helping to cut saplings used for the sticks. “I thought it just sounded like a really interesting, educational, fun thing to do,” said Watson, who grew up on Scotland Avenue near campus. “I always felt a connection to Wilson College. I think the fact that … it was being done at the college just made me want to be a part of it.”
Lindsey said he was impressed by the way Dougherty used the sculpture as a teachable moment for students. “I heard and saw Patrick speaking with students about what is involved in being an artist and making a work on this scale. He spoke with eloquence and conviction about work ethic, analysis, synthesis, decision-making and he shared invaluable life lessons,” he said.
During the installation work, Dougherty told his volunteers one of the secrets to the sculpture was to treat the sticks as if they were lines on a drawing. “The sticks all have to be flowing in a certain direction.” said Lindsey Sutton ’16, who is majoring in chemistry and fine arts. “I never thought of sticks as being lines to draw with, but when you look at his sculptures, you can see they have a lot of lines and you can see how it’s done.”
I heard and saw Patrick speaking with students about what is involved in being an artist and making a work on this scale. He spoke with eloquence and conviction about work ethic, analysis, synthesis, decision-making and he shared invaluable life lessons." -Philip Lindsey
A Walk on the Wild Side, like all of Dougherty’s creations, is intended to be impermanent, to gradually decompose back into the environment. “As with the beauty of a spring flowerbed, the fleeting lifespan of these objects adds urgency on one hand and a bittersweet pleasure on the other,” Dougherty says on his webpage.
Dougherty graduated from the University of North Carolina in 1967 and earned a master’s degree in hospital and health administration from the University of Iowa. After spending time in the Air Force and as a hospital administrator, he began building his own house in the woods outside Chapel Hill, N.C., in 1975. In the process of fitting together beams, notching logs and clearing saplings from his yard, the idea of his “stickwork’ creations came to him.
“It was the lessons learned while problem-solving the issues of personal shelter that proved the most useful in conceiving sculptures that could be woven through trees and flow over buildings.” Dougherty said. “It was the realization that the saplings crowded along my driveway, when cut and piled together, had an infuriating tendency to entangle with each other, but even more, that these branches could be seen as lines with which to draw and could be configured into large-scale patterns.”
He went back to the University of North Carolina and took art courses. A sculpture he made for his final student show called Maple Body Wrap caught the eye of a curator at the North Carolina Museum of Art, who encouraged him to submit it for the 1982 North Carolina Art Exhibition. The following year, he had his first one-person show, entitled Waitin’ It Out in Maple, at the Southeastern Center for Contemporary Art in Winston-Salem, N.C. Commissions for his work began coming in.
Over the last 30 years, Dougherty has built more than 250 sculptures, from Scotland to Japan and Brussels, including all over the United States. His works can be viewed at www.stickwork.net.
“I think a good sculpture has a lot of different associations for the viewer. Everyone has the experience of playing with sticks when they were children, so there’s that initial impression,” Dougherty said, adding other associations his sculptures invoke are “building birds’ nests, maybe something you saw when you visited an indigenous tribe, building a fort when you were a kid.” He personally feels that his works channel the primitive side in all of us, citing, “The shadow life of our indigenous past … the need for simple shelter, the hunting and gathering instinct.”
After Wilson, Dougherty began working on another sculpture in his home state of North Carolina, near Hillsboro. He said he enjoyed his time at Wilson, as he does when working on most college campuses. “When I’m working at a museum or another institution like that, there are usually massive considerations. College campuses are much more loosely organized. I find I usually have more volunteers and more time to interact with people who just happen by,” Dougherty said. “Things went very well here.”
Mistick said she hopes the sculpture will be a source of pride for the Chambersburg community and draw people to the campus—which the installation already seems to be doing, as evidenced by the number of parents and children who can be found there in nice weather. “This sure puts all my childhood forts to shame,” Waynesboro teacher Erin Staley ’12 said one sunny day as she watched her toddler son, Carter, explore the inside of A Walk on the Wild Side.
The project has been “a wonder-filled experience for our community,” according to Lindsey. The essence of A Walk on the Wild Side “fits perfectly with the ideals and goals of Wilson, where there is no division between the life of the mind, life of work, life of service and life of honor,” he said. “The liberal arts are, of course, at the core of Wilson’s mission. The same could be said about Mr. Dougherty’s sculpture.”
Cathy Mentzer contributed to this article.