Nature and culture

After traveling to Europe, Africa and Asia, today we will cross the Atlantic Ocean to land on the East Coast. Destination: North Carolina, one of the first thirteen founding states of the U.S.A.

Prior to colonization, this area was inhabited by several Native American tribes, including the Cherokee, Shawnee and Mississippians. With the arrival of European settlers in 1500, the native culture was greatly influenced, until it turned into an American subculture, following the independence of America from Great Britain in 1789. Europeans were drawn to the region's large timber resources. In fact, forests still cover nearly 60% of North Carolina, making it one of the largest producers of furniture in the country. The familiar nickname by which it is commonly called, the Tar Heel State, evokes the times when North Carolina was a leading producer of supplies for the naval industry. In the past, the inhabitants of the region were known to be workers of tar, pitch and turpentine made from long-leaved pines. Legend has it that when British soldiers landed on the shores of North Carolina, they literally stuck to the ground, significantly slowing down the pace of conquest. As a matter of fact, the nickname heel of tar is due to the fact that the workers involved in the processing of tar, turpentine and pitch often went barefoot during the hot summer months, collecting the dark-colored oily liquids on their heels. During the Civil War, North Carolina soldiers flipped the meaning of the term and turned an epithet into an accolade. They called themselves tar heels as an expression of state pride. Another matter of pride is having kept, practically intact, those forests in which hunters and gatherers wandered in search of food and shelter already 10,000 years ago. Wood is an element inscribed in the DNA of every inhabitant of the region. Today we will meet an artist who grew up in North Carolina and who, thanks to his creativity and ability, allows us to meditate on the relationship between man and environment, a reflection that is fully inscribed in the epistemological construction of the nature-culture categories, developed within modern thought. He is land-artist Patrick Dougherty, also nicknamed Stickman and the Jackson Pollock of saplings.

Through the intertwining of sticks and the study of primitive construction techniques, Dougherty creates sculptures similar to primordial shelters, full of whimsy and visual energy. His gestures, sensations and physical effort become an integral part of his works, made unique by the perfect combination of his idea and the characteristics of the surrounding environment. Finding the right material while respecting the environment, is a constant challenge, as well as part of the adventure of artistic creation that leads Patrick Dougherty to sift through forgotten corners of the world where plants grow wild and full of possibilities. A distinctive feature of Dougherty's work is the involvement in the construction process of heterogeneous volunteers, a true innovation that makes his artistic action even more original.

Patrick, you were born in Oklahoma but grew up in North Carolina, a place where nature is an integral part of both the landscape and the culture. How much has this natural-cultural context influenced your art?

Childhood play in the woods of North Carolina was my initial foray into hunting and gathering, and with my brothers and sisters I hollowed out living thickets to make bedrooms, kitchens and more. But as some children lay in fields and studied the architectural details of clouds, I responded to the drawing quality of the winter landscape - all those lines in the upper branches, imagined shapes and faces scribbled up there. When I later turned to sculpture it seemed easy to co-opt the forces of nature and play out a natural drawing style on the surfaces of my large gestural works. My whole effort to become a sculptor as an adult, dovetailed with a secret childhood dream to become an artist. Like other children I made forts of sticks and this experimentation probably directed my choice of materials as an artist. Picking up a stick back then and bending it seemed to give me big ideas, and when grown, I was able to capitalize on those childhood urges from long ago. I think, as humans, we carry a sort of "know how" with us as a legacy from our hunting and gathering past.

What is the artist's task?

I feel that the job of a visual artist is to make something that causes viewers to come running and to build an illusion so compelling that it encourages participation. I think that a good sculpture is one that evokes in the viewer a wealth of personal associations. And I hear from viewers their many thoughts about favorites trees, stories about the Garden of Eden, and secrets about first dates just inside the tree line and out of the view of their parents prying eyes. I personally enjoy using saplings as lines with which to draw and suggesting in the sculpture's surface the powerful momentum of wind, water, and the hidden forces of the natural world. Most important, people love to explore strange shapes and hidden spaces, particularly if they encounter them in unlikely spots.

What is the philosophy of your art?

I describe my work by saying that I do temporary work built on site from materials gathered in the nearby landscape. That is, I have been committed to sculptural installation and the belief that a sculpture built on site should blend and resonate with its surroundings. Finally, I believe in accessibility. For me the three-week construction phase is an opportunity to engage with the community and start a conversation with the regular users of that space. Working eight hours a day on site is akin to a cultural exchange in which the energy of those people and that location are folded into the sculpture itself.

Your artworks are mainly built with wooden sticks, a decomposable material. What relationship do you have with the concept of temporality?

I find temporary work compelling. I use ephemeral materials that fade and ultimately disintegrate. I respond to the ideas of life cycles, decline and regeneration.

What are the stages of the creative process? Is nature guiding you or vice versa?

I work from a concept which I develop while studying the site. I often use details in my peripheral vision for guidance. A line of mountains in the distance, for example, or the shape of a nearby hedge might promote a new idea. Initially I make word associations with the site and then develop a series of thumbnail sketches. These are not line-by-line renderings, and during the building process I often have to read into these loose sketches, saying to myself: "Oh, I must have meant this." One big advantage of working on site one line at a time is the ability to adjust the scale of the work to the site. As I come to know the site and take its full measure, I constantly adjust the work to fit any new revelation. Once the concept is set, the actual work proceeds very quickly, and sculptures generally take three weeks to complete. I start by finding a good stand of saplings nearby, often capitalizing on someone's desire to maintain their property. The actual construction technique is a layering process, and in the first phase, I pull one stick through another and build a haphazard matrix to create the rough shape of the sculpture. Next comes the drawing phases, in which I picture a pile of sticks as a bundle of lines with which to sketch the surface texture. I use many of the drawing conventions that someone using a paper and pencil might employ, including "x"ing, hatch marks and dramatic emphasis lines. Also, I have learned to amass the smaller ends of sticks in one direction which gives the impression that the surface is moving. The final step is "fix up", a cosmetic treatment in which I erase certain mistakes by covering them with very small twigs.

What are the sizes and types of trees that you usually use for the realization of your sculptures?

The saplings which I gather range from finger to wrist size, and I gather them with both color and flexibility in mind. Willow is a favorite sapling, but I also use maple, sweetgum, elm, or dogwood. Sometimes I use more exotic saplings like sassafras, crabapple or fruit woods. In Japan I experimented with reeds and bamboo and I have also used strawberry guava in Hawaii.

In addition to creativity, your sculptures require considerable technical skill. How long does it take to build these creations? How do you live the unexpected? A problem or an opportunity?

My trick, if I have one, has been to partner with an organization and use their help in preparing to build the sculpture. One aspect of that effort has been the use of volunteers to help gather the saplings and help with the construction. Generally, I might have four people working at any one time, but during the three-week period of work, this might mean that fifty different people have played a part in its development. The crew includes both rich and poor, educated or not, and people of all ages. It might be a hippie and a businessman working with a grandmother and a high school senior. For a short period of time, all these people unite as stick workers and indulge some of their most basic urges to build. I have learned how to work productively with a team at my side and how to apportion work and to be encouraging. I am fond of saying that sticks were mankind's first building material and even the modern person continues to have a deep affinity for how to use them. All that said, every day on site is a problem-solving event. One day the scaffold is late; the next, volunteers come late and sometimes the sapling supply runs low. Solving all the problems of a build is entertaining to me and “all in a day’s work.”

In the last thirty years you have made hundreds of works that have achieved great international success. Doing a quick and approximate calculation, there are about a dozen works per year. How do you keep this creative and operational pace? 

Counting the most recent work in Atlanta, GA USA, I have made 313 works, which is about ten works each year. That means sleeping in many different beds and the wear-and-tear of constant travel. But on the other hand, it has meant meeting scores of interesting people and making many friends for the arts. I feel privileged to have had so many great opportunities, and I love my work.

We usually think of the artist as a man/woman who works individually. In your case, community involvement is key. How does the inclusion of volunteers affect the final design of a sculpture?

The inclusion of volunteers makes the process of building more fun. Volunteers bring their peculiarities and stories about their lives. They are a bridge to the larger community. They call the newspaper and invite their own friends by for a visit. They give a boost to construction by adding necessary saplings. Building community is not the purpose of the volunteer’s commitment but often inadvertently many bonds are formed and there are many secondary gains to asking people to help with the project.

The participation and involvement of the viewer are the peculiar characteristics of contemporary art. What levels of interaction do you want to achieve with your artworks? Do you believe that there is public awareness of the participatory / active aspect of art?

I strive to make the building process available to the public as well as the finished sculpture. The drama of the build and having viewers second-guessing the outcome adds to the excitement. If someone has a question, they are free to step over and ask me. I think this kind of openness breaks down some of the preconceptions and resentment that some elements of the population carry when they think of artist endeavors. The objective is to encourage the public to enjoy art by making viewing as easy as possible.

Thinking of the first forms of art in prehistory - for example the Paleolithic graffiti of Lascaux and Altamira - it is immediately clear that the relationship of man with nature is a direct and primordial question, inextricably linked to the artistic factor. The need to express one's conception of existence through drawings, graffiti and engravings helps the human being to explain not only the most immediate natural phenomena, but also the magic sphere. Is the magical-spiritual dimension present in your works?

I think a sculptural experience can be nurturing and transformative. With regard to sapling sculptures, children have a long history of seeing a branch as an imaginative object. A stick can be a castle, a weapon or musical instrument. Who can deny the magic in a bird nest or the intrigue of looking down a sunlit path trailing through a forest? There is the mythic first kiss under the lilac bush and the lore of a special tree. Using this material in a provocative way offers the viewer a metaphysical experience.

The ancients spoke of mimesis, or art as an imitation of nature. Your sculptures are placed in various contexts, from parks, to art galleries, to urban contexts. Do you have a desire to bring back the ancient concept - of classical derivation - of Beauty in these spaces?

My work often toys with the blend between architecture and natural forms. In the work just completed in Atlanta, GA USA the sculpture appears to be a kind of architectural shrubbery which reflects the stair-step tops of the skyscrapers nearby. In an early work called Sittin’ Pretty, I tried to build Bramante’s tempietto out of local maple saplings. I fantasied that Bramante derived his perfect proportion theory from looking at the shrubbery in his garden.

We live in the era of the so-called digital natives. What effect do your works have on young people? Do you believe that there is still a dialogue between nature and contemporary man?

The need for a moment with the natural world seems essential to everyone. I work for many botanical gardens and increasingly these gardens have become the substitute for urban dwellers who have no trees or yards of their own. Taking a walk among the trees, or gazing out on the ocean, I believe, remains essential to the human condition.

Many of your works are inspired by various cultures, such as Greek, Celtic or Native American culture. How important is the knowledge of other cultures?

The human subconscious is a big place and contains flickering imagines both ancient and current. I believe “everyman” contains some of “all of us”. Every architectural dome that has ever been imagined can easily be sourced by putting your fingertips together and adjusting the shape of your hands. I believe that the human mind contains common knowledge, and that creative people manage to enjoy bits and pieces of it.

Do you believe that travel, understood as an exploration not only of a place, but as a discovery or rediscovery of a set of human heritages, can be a good way to cultivate our identity?

I have often heard it said, “Why re-invent the wheel?” But as an artist, I find that the effort to re-examine what we think we know often produces new and more interesting variants. To me, it is clear that re-examining the edge of what we know is always fruitful.

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I thank Patrick Dougherty for accepting my invitation and for giving us the opportunity to enter - unfortunately only virtually - his botanical masterpieces. For those wishing to consult the complete program of Dougherty's installations planned for 2021 and follow all his progress, they can visit the site on the news page.

In the next interview we will completely change the register and context. We will leave the enchanted woods of land art to enter the heart of Armenia, a land of a millenary culture. I will tell you the story of 22-year-old Mher Potoyan, a young kamancheh player who lost his life during the recent fighting in Nagorno-Karabakh.




Nota: I campi con l'asterisco sono richiesti