Picking up sticks is a common practice where I come from. A recent visit with family in Southern Missouri meant long walks on the farm, stooping for interesting sticks and small logs to store in the barn for winter and to bring home to fill the stove on chilly spring nights.
When Patrick Dougherty came to PEM in search of people to pick up sticks and volunteer to help sculpt one of his famous Stickwork creations, I immediately signed up to help build PEM’s first commissioned public sculpture.
I had flown in the night before from helping to care for my sick father and was feeling raw. The sun peeked out from the clouds and soon I was collaborating as part of a cohesive group of PEM staffers and local artists.
“It’s grounding,” curator Trevor Smith told me, knowing just what I needed. “It really makes the house look like a home,” he added, referring to PEM’s 18th century wood-frame Crowninshield-Bentley house, which now shares a lawn with the friendly leaning structures.
Dougherty seemed so casual in these final days of the process, allowing the volunteers to pass on his techniques from person to person. Threading the sticks in and out, weaving them where others left off, proved meditative. Could a mistake be made? Not really…as long as you followed the basic direction of things.
“It’s just so arbitrary, until it’s not,” keenly observed Anna Foucher, a project coordinator in our education department. “I just keep coming back here to this very spot,” she added, referring to one of the teepee-like structures in the middle.
Maddie Kropa of the curatorial team volunteered for several days on what she saw as the perfect final project before she leaves the museum — after several years here — for a planned move out west. (Read more about Maddie’s move in this blog post.)
Over the course of 21 days, people came and went — artists, landscapers, weavers. The call for volunteers seemed to bring the exact right group of 50 people who possessed various skills — curiosity, upper body strength, talent with ladders, a willingness to get dirty and to talk to strangers, answering the public’s many, many questions.
Some volunteers were Salem locals, while other volunteers traveled from Boston suburbs or even Rhode Island to help out. They jumped at the chance to work side by side with the man who has created more than 250 Stickwork sculptures all over the world.
Hiding with our sticks and shears inside the rabbit warren, we could hear those on the busy street shout out what they thought the leaning structures looked like — birds nests, churches, hobbit houses. An older lady had been there every day and asked Dougherty for his autograph and a photo to use as her Christmas card.
I work in the PR department and barely got to do much stick-work, for all the media visits. Dougherty told the Boston Globe in his Carolina drawl that in the last three weeks it had been “grandmothers next to hippie chicks” working “towards beauty.” He described the experience of going inside as “a bit like stepping through the forest curtain and breathing with the other animals.”
When the project ended just in time for a preview during the May PEM/PM, people stood and marveled how the plan — hatched so long ago — had worked. Ultimately, the name of the piece, What the Birds Know, offers an indication of how Dougherty sees the final installation. He reserves naming each Stickwork until after it’s finished.
On Memorial Day Weekend, kids ran in and out of the Stickwork, giggling. Hundreds of photos were snapped each day and drivers paused in an otherwise tense intersection to crane their necks. On a hot afternoon, a tourist rounded the corner of Essex Street and Hawthorne Boulevard and exclaimed, “Holy Moly!” I stopped, pulled out my earbuds and told her, “Try stepping inside.”
Shortly after the work opened, two ladies from a local group called Sketch Collaborative spent a beautiful day sketching the Stickwork.
Stickwork is open daily (until it is reclaimed by nature) or by the end of 2016. The public is encouraged to enter and explore free of charge. For more, see this recent story and video from The Boston Globe.