Patrick Dougherty’s monumental environmental sculpture takes shape on the grounds of the Palo Alto Art Center.

by Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

While the Palo Art Center undergoes a closure and renovation, presumably for modernization, the grounds in front of the Center are the site of a Patrick Dougherty construction, made of willow saplings in his now very recognizable magical style.  By using materials easily accessible in nature, with a natural lifespan, and raised in the tradition of community building, Dougherty evokes an historic time when both art and habitations were more essential and integrated, had a regional style, and a low carbon footprint.  Driving along Newell Street, the zigzag sculpture is startling and inviting, with multiple entries and windows.  It arches, lilts, inclines, and weaves, both literally and figuratively, from the lawn upwards to the spiraling points that engage the branches of the sycamore trees above.  Its effect is both a delight and a reminder of our current environmental challenges.

At the Museum of Contemporary Art in Honolulu, Dougherty’s  Na Hali o’Wahili

Patrick Dougherty shared his concern for the natural world and his personal journey to outdoor installations with a full and enthusiastic audience in Palo Alto Art Center’s auditorium.  Even as he teaches sculpture at Chapel Hill in North Carolina, Dougherty reveals an old-fashioned all-American skepticism for modern art processes, materials, art institutions and maybe even artists.  He lives with and loves trees and, naturally, saw saplings as a sustainable material for sculpture that can be recycled.  Although his more than 200 large environmental sculptural installations have appeared in galleries, on roofs and in meadows, Dougherty typically gravitates toward sites where his art can reach upward to intertwine with living trees.  The structures themselves may evoke cocoons, vessels or the human figure, yet most take some form of a habitable building.  Each is created in response to the demands of the specific site.  He insists the entire process, from the selection of site, source and type of materials, process of construction and ultimate deconstruction have a minimal environmental impact and cause no harm.  The typical life cycle of one of his structures is two to three years.

Dougherty’s The Summer Palace at Morris Arboretum, 2009

In the environmentally proactive community of Palo Alto, it was a natural to see members of the Board and staff alongside art lovers and patrons, community volunteers with their children, and other artists joining together to help construct Double Take.  Dougherty began with a standard exoskeletal scaffolding to help insert clusters of larger branches, two feet into the soil, at intervals vertically around the perimeter of his building.  He claims that his drawing style on paper is inadequate, leaving him with the only alternative of drawing the structure with his saplings as he goes along.  Over the years he has worked with reed, bamboo and other flexible materials –whatever was available – but always prefers the flexibility of willow.  Luckily his supplier of willow saplings is right around the corner, in Pescadero.  Taking the lead, and instructing his helpers here and there, the form emerges and begins to stand on its own, allowing the scaffolding to be dismantled.  The willow saplings are tucked gracefully into the walls, woven in and upward, sometimes following a spiraling exterior movement resembling roots or vines clinging to the walls, or decorative borders surrounding windows.  At the top, each conical roof section ends in a curling tuft of small branches.

The final sculpture is an amazing multicolored castle-like creation with many thick intervals of parallel lines serving as sections of walls or wrapping around to form turrets, rounded windows and arching entryways.  It appears to have sprouted directly from the ground and over years leaned with the wind.  When it begins to disintegrate it will be turned into wood chips and be composted back to the earth.  In the meantime it will surely become a popular beacon for art lovers, entertaining youthful visitors and enlivening the urban environment where it now sits.

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