When artist Patrick Dougherty and a group volunteers created Stickwork on the lawn of our historic Crowninshield-Bentley House one year ago, passers by tried to guess what the structure most resembled. A fairy-tale house, a church, a house for very large birds. The bird theme was most often repeated and what Dougherty ultimately was going for as the piece titled What the Birds Know came together.
Dougherty told me during the making of episode 006 of the PEMcast that birds know all kinds of useful things and those things are replicated here, on the very publicly located lawn at the corner of Essex Street and Hawthorne Boulevard. Gathered and bent sticks and twigs coming together to form something stronger than they are on their own — it’s a springtime metaphor anyone can get excited about. And excited is exactly what little kids are feeling as they run in and out of the tall nests, through all the doors, peeking out the windows and hiding from each other, burrowing down in the nesting material.
One year later, the curators responsible for the structure are pleased about the mild nature of this past winter. PEM’s Stickwork has certainly held up, they say, and is even better. “It’s a whole different vibe now than last May,” says Trevor Smith, PEM’s Curator of the Present Tense. “The color of the wood matches the tree more.”
Janey Winchell, director of PEM’s Art & Nature Center, goes over the sculpture every couple of weeks to put errant sticks back in place. Of the high-traffic area she says, “The structure is settled now and the lack of pollution here is remarkable.”
The two curators recently indulged the PR department in a playful birthday photo shoot, complete with vegan and gluten free cupcakes from local Jodie Bee Bakes, in front of Stickwork. Smith sang the lyrics to The Carpenters’ famous song: “Why do birds suddenly appear…” as two ginger-haired kids ran in and out, giggling and wandering in front of PEM photographer Allison White’s camera.
This time last year, I was returning to Salem from weeks of caring for my terminally ill father. Coming back here on May 20 from Southern Missouri was like travelling back in time and reliving spring and the budding of trees all over again. The actual birds chirped loudly in the trees above. In between assisting photographers and film crews who clamored for the best shot of the structure as it went up, I helped the hard working volunteers bend a few sticks and put them into place.
I wrote in a blog post called Sticking Together:
“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.”
It was great to hear some of them tell stories of gathering the sticks on a much colder day with Patrick Dougherty in Cape Ann. Each volunteer had their own take on the meditative hands-on work it took to build the structure and how it contrasted so sharply with their office work, meetings and dress up events at the museum.
“It’s just so arbitrary, until it’s not,” keenly observed Anna Foucher, a project coordinator in our education department.
Stickwork has no end date. It will be in place for as long as it can withstand the elements. Have you walked by, stopped to explore, met others leaning against the fence? If not, take time to learn What the Birds Know.
Below, enjoy a selection of Instagram images of PEM’s Stickwork through the seasons, as well as a video made by PEM’s own Chip Van Dyke.