PROVO — These 30,000 pounds of saplings are resilient.
Before the load was shipped from upstate New York to Brigham Young University’s Museum of Art, they were put in a freezer for two weeks at minus 20 degrees (to kill any bugs) then de-leaved and fire-retarded. Post-delivery, the saplings have been bent and twisted into something strikingly new: “Windswept,” a towering, contorting sculpture that seems unreal. That the piece was erected in only three weeks seems equally unbelievable.
“Windswept” will be open for viewing starting Dec. 7, continuing through mid-October of next year. It’s the brainchild of Patrick Dougherty, a renowned contemporary artist who’s been crafting these stick sculptures for 30 years. Somehow, he completes 10 of these each year at locations throughout the world.
“Sculpture is about problem-solving. And problem-solving is a pleasure,” Dougherty told the Deseret News while standing in the middle of the piece, a team of assistants working around him. “You’re kind of on the lam, on the edge of not knowing what you’re doing. It always brings out the best in you. If they promised the mayor it’s going to be great and everybody’s going to love it, you better get on with it.”
Dougherty’s Southern accent — not too thick, but definitely present — lingers on his words. He speaks patiently. Eloquently, but not ornate.
Given his background, that makes sense: Growing up in North Carolina, Dougherty studied English as an undergrad, then earned a Master’s degree in hospital and health administration. After a few years in that field, he returned to the University of North Carolina to study art history and sculpture.
Accomplishing pieces like “Windswept” requires all those skills — communicating, coordinating, building. It’s sophisticated work. It’s also manual labor.
“They’re messy at first because there’s a structure to it underneath going all different directions,” he explained. “Then we start layering on these big lines so that there’s a sense of direction.”
These pieces, Dougherty said, require a kind of “line logic”: big lines, medium lines, small lines, giving the sense of variation, but all working to create a serpentine effect. Creating that in only three weeks requires a large team of volunteers. Dougherty has two assistants that travel with him, and “Windswept” was aided by a team of more than 50 student helpers from BYU. The piece imitates the nearby mountain range visible from campus and uses a new “ridgeline” weaving technique along the top that Dougherty started using this year.
“We were able to use this kind of whip stitch,” he said, “kind of like what your grandmother would have done on the edge of her quilt — except we’ve got a bigger stitch to it.”
For Dougherty, the volunteers aren’t just logistically necessary. He also needs them creatively. Building his sculptures on-site, and interacting with the locals while doing it, becomes a sustaining force.
“I think my job is to excite people’s imagination,” he said. “And the more stories you hear, the more starting points you have. It opens a world up to you. For me, at least, and my work, having a conversation with the public, and a kind of reciprocity with how they see things, is really important.”
Dougherty said he considers his work a privilege — he’s benefited from good timing. When his art career began, Dougherty said organizations weren’t used to dealing with a living sculptor. In time, though, the idea of an artist building something on-site became trendy, and he was there to fill the need.1 comment on this story
Standing in the middle of “Windswept,” the appeal is clear. He thinks there’s a widespread cultural nostalgia for farm life lost — for the serene, soothing repetition of that kind of farm work. He also points to the way children act out humankind’s hunting and gathering pasts. While in a piece like “Windswept,” he said, all those of deep, instinctive memories are evoked.
“This work touches base with a lot of those feelings. They awaken those feelings,” he said. “It has a big pull toward deeper memories that are buried. All those things are part and parcel of some deeper urges.”
If you go ...
What: “Patrick Dougherty: Windswept”
When: Dec. 7, 2018-Oct. 19, 2019
Where: Brigham Young University Museum of Art, Campus Drive, Provo
How much: Free