“Palm trees are amazing. You know, up until recently, I’d never seen one.” I gave my co-worker Dave O’Ryan a questioning look. “Like, not even on a postcard? I’m not sure how that’s even possible…” We shifted our position, adjusting under the weight of the Animaris Ordis that we were carrying off the beach in Miami as a brief but torrential rainstorm ripped through the end of our afternoon Strandbeest demonstration at Art Basel Miami Beach. Dave returned my inquiring look with one of his own. “No. I’d never seen one in person. Obviously. But, check it out. We’re barely getting wet under here.” I looked up at the thick fan of palm fronds, noticing their clever design and was thankful for the shelter.
Fast forward a mere few days and trees are still looming significantly overhead, as my feet sink into cold mud, and the wind and driving rain whip against my still Miami sunburned face. However, this deciduous variety is doing nothing to protect us from a December nor’easter. For some reason, my colleagues and I seem woefully unprepared for the excursion we’ve been planning for months, while visiting artist Patrick Dougherty is decked head to toe in the perfect protective rainwear he had the foresight to pack. My tights catch on a pricker bush. What was I thinking with this outfit? And where were my rain boots this morning when I desperately needed them?!
For over 25 years, North Carolina artist Patrick Dougherty has been making his incredible architectural sculptures — Stickworks —all around the globe using nothing but local saplings. For three weeks next May, Patrick will be working with a team of museum staff and volunteers to build PEM’s first ever public sculpture (an exciting landmark in the museum’s 216 year history) on the front lawn of the Crowninshield-Bentley House.
Today, Patrick is making a site visit to help us solve that very critical issue of determining what kind of saplings we have at our disposal, and where, exactly, we’ll be gathering this enormous amount of material for the build — a few tractor trailer loads, he estimates. It’s that critical mass of sticks that can prove challenging to come by and Patrick advised us in advance to think about locations where park services, telephone companies or local homeowners will be clearing or maintaining land. Often these are the places that your eye simply passes over when you’re on the highway, places that are unregistered in memory and, sometimes, physically inaccessible to the general public…this is not the type of research that I’m used to conducting.
So, exhibition coordinator Caitlin Lowrie and I thanked our lucky stars when we were introduced to local tree expert, Matt Natti (of Natti Landscaping) by his wife, and our colleague, Janet Mallet-Natti. In short, Matt is our savior. Familiar with hidden spots and back roads in Gloucester, he’s made possible today’s visit. Matt and Patrick are up ahead testing the tautness of sticks and talking about trees like old friends.
They ask each other questions like: What do you think of this sweet pepperbush? Is this species invasive? When does leaf-out happen around here? Does this particular species dry out quickly after it’s been cut? Where’s the access road for the tractor trailers?
With Matt carrying 16-month-old Isabella (who is dealing with the weather much more gracefully than I am) and his dog Booger following close at our heels, the seven of us are quite a sight (if anyone else actually happened to be outside to catch a glimpse of us).
Back in my car, the windows fog and collection specialist Anna Frej leans forward to give Patrick a chamois to clean off his glasses. Anna will be Patrick’s assistant throughout his stay at PEM, assisting him and a team of yet-to-be-recruited volunteers throughout the harvesting and build process. Today, she begins by assisting with bifocal duty.
Cramped in the front seat of my swampy Subaru Forester with three young women who are trying their best not to complain about the need to find dry clothes before heading back to the office, if this is the worst site-visit Patrick has ever made, he doesn’t let on, exclaiming: “Boy, this weather is the definition of inclement!”
He is the definition of good humored. A woodsman to his core, inspired to pursue an art career after building his home by hand many years ago, he assures us that this definitely is NOT the worst weather he’s endured. Although, as he starts recalling a past build in Kauai where he used strawberry guava and rose apple saplings (which instantly makes me crave a smoothie), we all agree that Hawaii sounds pretty freakin’ sweet right about now.
Perhaps because we’re all reminiscing about sunnier times, my mind wanders back to the beaches of Miami, and I realize how remarkable it is to be working simultaneously with two artists — Theo Jansen and Patrick Dougherty — who inspire such awe and wonder by transforming the simple materials that most of us take at face value — PVC pipe and saplings.
These exhibitions have led me to spend some time with both Theo and Patrick and I’m starting to wonder if these men are distant cousins (although at this point, they have not yet met). In spite of their rock star statuses in the art world and beyond, they are down to earth, patient, kind and open to sharing their vision with every fan or curious passerby that happens upon their work. They seem to roll with the punches easily and with a confidence that many of us high-strung exhibition planning types wish we could emulate. Part intense obsession and part methodical handiwork, each of these artists possesses a creative process of backbreaking work and calloused hands that is nothing short of a labor of love.
At the heart of this romantic sentiment is a courtship between the artist and the complicit materials that succumb to being bent, manipulated and imbued with new, albeit finite, life. After a year or two has passed, both Strandbeest and Stickwork will become part of the fossil record. Perhaps with this in mind, it’s easier to understand Patrick and Theo’s tireless need to create, come hell or high water…or nor’easter.
As Patrick regales us with more war stories from the field, his enthusiasm for the coming build at PEM is infectious. I turn on the windshield defroster, point the car back toward Salem and dream of Spring.