Clustered in a staggered line, the hulking shapes of a half-dozen stick art figures line the west side of Gilkey Hall. In the course of two brief weeks, dozens of volunteers swarmed the site like leaf-cutter ants, transforming a mountain of willow branches into a work of art.
Sitting on a cement bench in People’s Park on the Oregon State University campus, artist Patrick Dougherty spoke about the vision that is driving his new project. His work was commissioned by the College of Liberal Arts.
“It’s a sense of graduation,” he said. “These are beings that have flowing robes and mortarboard hats. There’s some sense of personage to them, and ideally they might be lined up for graduation.”
Dougherty builds large temporary structures by weaving together countless limbs and stems from local trees. He’s created more than 200 installations around the world, including four this year at universities.
Because of the enormous scale of his work, Dougherty depends on assistance from volunteers to complete his projects. Although the work is intricate, it’s also relatively straight forward, and eager volunteers can always find a task among the branches. During the two-week OSU project, dozens of students, faculty, staff and community members signed up to help, or simply dropped in after seeing the work start to go up. People have come from as far as Portland and Eugene to help out.
“We’ve had just an enormous amount of interest in it, which I’m really happy about,” Dougherty said. “The Dean decided it would be a fantastic thing for campus, and I think his vision of a scultpure that might capture people’s imaginations has come true.”
Word of mouth, media coverage and even a simple “Volunteers wanted” sign stuck in the mud helped Dougherty draw in people with a wide variety of talents. He said the work is not collaborative in the sense that he doesn’t usually waiver from his original artistic vision. However, volunteers are essential to translating his ideas into physical reality.
“I allow people to help,” Dougherty said, although he is open to a bit of inspiration from those helpers. “There is a certain level where I’m letting students have their way because they tell me what their ideas are about it.”
OSU alum Brett Larson was one of the volunteers drawn into the project simply by seeing it go up.
“I’ve just walked by it over the last couple of weeks,” he said, so on a drizzly Wednesday afternoon he finally decided to stop and help. The former philosophy student was excited to actually work on an art installation rather than simply enjoying it from afar.
“It’s nice to work with your hands when you work with your mind a lot,” he said.
The space has also become an inspiration for art students like those taking classes from OSU art instructor Stephen Hayes, who required his class to help Dougherty gather willows from a local farm and strip them of leaves and branches during the early part of the process. Some volunteers return again and again, and some just spend an hour or two helping out.
“This is a process that is easily comprehended by everyone,” Dougherty said. “Everyone played with sticks as children, and childhood play is reminiscent of our hunting and gathering past. We have a shadow life of our hunting and gathering forefathers kind of built into us, so it’s easy for people to take up and start working with this.”
The OSU project has given Dougherty the chance to work with forms he’s never tackled before, always an exciting opportunity.
“I wanted a long, thin piece. I wanted to feature shapes I’ve never made,” he said. “These little thin, knife-blade shapes were fun to try. They make a pathway through their middle, so you can start at one end and work your way through, walking from one doorway to the next.”
When Dougherty first arrives to build one of his art installations, he doesn’t do it with a notebook full of sketches in hand. Instead, he surveys the space, takes note of the natural environment, and gets a good idea of the local materials he’ll be using to build his one-of-a-kind stick art forms.
Only then does he rough out a plan that will derive inspiration from his surroundings.
The labyrinth-like feel was inspired by a Japanese topiary hedge Dougherty had seen, and the rakish tops give an extra sense of whimsy to the piece. The large forms dominate, but do not overpower, the small park where they’ve been placed.
“The way that it sets is really important, it’s close to the walkway and easy for students to step off and take a look at it,” Dougherty said. “It’s not like it’s all hell and gone in the middle of a field.”
Dougherty paused as a passer by stopped to talk to him about the project.
“What’s really nifty about this is how the color comes in,” his fan enthused before walking away. Dougherty said that he has people stop in every minute of every day to talk to him.
“It’s the difference between artists who have to guess what the reaction of the public will be, to the absolute knowledge that the piece will have a good home,” Dougherty said.
The piece was completed on Oct. 21, and will stand on site for about two years, or until it decomposes.
~ Theresa Hogue