On a recent vacation in Napa Valley, en route to our first of many glasses of Cabernet, I stumbled across one of Patrick Dougherty’s super-sized nests out in the wild. Thousands of miles away, the artist was about to start construction of a similar Stickwork on the front lawn of a historic house at PEM.
At first I was delighted by the serendipity. But then I was mesmerized by the lure of the art and what it revealed with close looking. How does Dougherty weave saplings into towering huts that look like they dropped out of the sky? What compels him — 261 Stickworks and counting? What-in-the heck is he thinking?
For the installation at the Hall Winery, just south of St. Helena on California Highway 29, Dougherty was thinking about location, location, location. “My site, an outdoor room with a matrix of olive trees, reminded me of Roman ruins and an Italian summer,” he told Kathryn and Craig Hall when they commissioned the piece in 2013. “I imagined a bit of rustic architecture — a bivouac from the heat and a chance for a restorative glass of Cabernet.”
Deck the Halls, made out of willow saplings, is on the official wine and contemporary art tour, along with Bunny Foo Foo, a 35-foot-tall stainless steel sculpture, exquisite glassworks, a sequined (of course!) Nick Cave collage and a large camel contemplating the eye of a needle (wink wink).
Companions on the tour practically swarmed the Stickwork, posing for pictures in doorways, popping heads through windows like delighted elementary schoolchildren set loose on a new playground. The guide said people find the spot so enchanting that they come here to propose. My husband took the cue and asked if I’d marry him again. I said yes. It was, after all, our 25th wedding anniversary.
Dougherty clearly weaves magic into the sticks. “You feel awe and amazement,” says Kim Guerster, one of my PEM colleagues who made plans to see a new Dougherty installation in Philadelphia the same week I stumbled upon the Napa Valley sculpture. “You think how in the world did he get the idea to do this, then wonder how does it all stick together.”
Guerster took her 10-year-old daughter to see A Waltz in the Woods, seven pods surrounded by redwoods at the Morris Arboretum. They agree that his work is absolutely Dr. Seussical, with its slanted doors and windows, pointy domed roofs and woven ceilings. In 2010 they happened upon Dougherty’s Summer Palace installation (think multi-leveled igloos), also at the arboretum.
“The sheer size of his work just stops you in your tracks,” Guerster says. “Then as you dig in, you see that even the ceilings have a design, a pattern, the windows and doors are playfully shaped, then, wow! His work says, ‘Stay. Come play!’”
Even more people can come play now that we’ve got one of Dougherty’s amazing creations in Salem, thanks to a chance Stickwork encounter 25 years ago for Jane Winchell at the deCordova Sculpure Park and Museum (decordova.org) in Lincoln, Mass.
Winchell is The Sarah Fraser Robbins Director of The Dotty Brown Art & Nature Center and curator of Branching Out: Trees as Art. Like Dougherty, she is pretty fascinated by sticks. And while Winchell can’t remember exactly why she happened to be at the DeCordova that day, the experience of seeing Spinoffs, the freestanding hut and “whimsical tornado of sticks” that continued up the brick building and wrapped around turrets stuck with her. Last year she proposed Dougherty’s work for PEM.
“I love the just-coming-across-it aspect,” Winchell says of the prospect of seeing Dougherty’s works, “It’s a completely different connection then if you have expectations of what you’re going to see. The surprise factor is really fun.”
Stickwork: Patrick Dougherty is on view at PEM through December 31, 2016 on the Crowninshield-Bentley Lawn across from the museum. This is the first time PEM has commissioned an outdoor sculptural installation.