Oregon State University

Wild Willow: Weaving Art, Humanities, and Science

On Oct 18, 2011 over one hundred and thirty people gathered in LaSells Stewart Center for an event titled “Wild Willow: Weaving Art, Humanities, and Science.” Inspired by the presence of the woven-stick sculpture artist Patrick Dougherty on OSU campus, the Environmental Humanities Initiative-sponsored event was designed to provide an interdisciplinary understanding of human’s diverse uses of willow. The event featured ecologist Tom Kaye, anthropologist Margaret Mathewson, and the artist Patrick Dougherty, presenting, respectively, the ecological, cultural, and artistic uses of willow.

First to talk was Tom Kaye, the Executive Director of the Institute for Applied Ecology, a local nonprofit organization with a mission to conserve native habitats and species through restoration, research and education. Tom focused his presentation on the tremendous variability of species within the salix genus, from two-inch willows in the Arctic Circle tundra to the iconic weeping willow tree of the southern U.S. Concurrent with this taxonomic and geographic diversity are the diverse ecological functions of willow—as forage, habitat, and riparian structure. This last aspect—riparian structure—makes willow an important plant in terms of ecological restoration. Tom presented several before-and-after case studies of willow plantings successfully restoring degraded riparian areas.

Next to speak was Margaret Mathewson, who teaches classes in Ancestral Technology, Anthropology of Art, and Ethnobiology at OSU. She is also employed by a number of western state’s Native Tribes’ Education and Cultural Resource departments. Margaret spoke on native tribes’ cultural uses of willow, uses which extend from the practical to the spiritual. She detailed, in fact, how tribes do not make divisions between practical and spiritual uses: a basket-weaver is attune to the spirit of the willow she harvests, she speaks to this spirit as she harvests the plant, and sings to the threads of the plant as she weaves the basket. Baskets can thus be used medicinally—to metaphysically bind up another’s sickness within the basket (which is then ceremoniously burned), just as they can simultaneously be used aesthetically, spiritually, and practically. The end-use is not entirely important, Margaret stressed, what is important is the process

This was a perfect segue into the event’s keynote speaker: Patrick Dougherty, a world-renowned sculptor installing a series of whimsical and towering woven-stick structures in OSU’s People’s Park. The structures—some of which are over twenty feet tall—are made almost entirely out of willow. Over the course of the next half-hour, Patrick presented a retrospective of his career of weaving sticks into hundreds of projects all over the world. Willow, he explained, is great material for his “stickwork”: prolific, ubiquitous, and supple. Suppleness allows Patrick to bend and snag sticks to create his desired forms, though he was quick to point out that the strengths and flaws of his gathered material, in conjunction with his chosen site and the community of volunteers who help him install his structure, strongly influence the forms he builds. Thus his art, like an individual willow plant or a native’s basket, cannot truly be separated from the processes by which it came into being.

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