Five Minutes With Acclaimed Stick Sculptor Patrick Dougherty

by N.L. Thi-Hamrick on April 29, 2021 in Living Texas, Dallas/Fort Worth, Art, Family,

For over 30 years, Patrick Dougherty’s unique woven sculptures have been marveled at worldwide. Currently, his one-of-a-kind Stickwork installation is creating a buzz among Texans at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden.

A wilderness enthusiast, Dougherty combines his love for carpentry and nature in the construction of his world-famous pieces. These large-scale structures are crafted entirely by hand from woven tree branches. The Oklahoma native has built over 300 works since his first piece in 1982, and received numerous accolades, including a National Endowment for the Arts grant.

“Playin’ Hooky,” the magical twisting sculpture created by master craftsman Patrick Dougherty, his son Sam, a team of volunteers and staff from the Fort Worth Botanic Garden during the February freeze, is on display to the public through December. Courtesy photo

This talented artisan has plied his art in venues from schools to museums, arboretums and green spaces. His aptly named “Playin’ Hooky” resembles a childhood getaway, and runs until December at the Fort Worth Botanic Garden (FWBG).

Sharing his father’s love for construction and the natural world, Sam Dougherty is now Patrick’s full-time construction assistant. The pair, along with a team of hardy local volunteers and FWBG staff, spent 19 days building Playin’ Hooky, some of which was during February’s record freezing weather.

Patrick Dougherty during construction of The Big Easy in 2017 at the Sarah P Duke Gardens of Duke University, Durham, NC. Photo Michael Mauney

Did you coin the term “Stickwork?”

I think this truly belongs to me now that I’ve worked with it nearly 35 years. Although I had a couple of years at an art department in North Carolina, I am self-trained.

I began working and trying to figure out how to use this material, and only later did I become aware that the material has widely been used in basket-making, flower arranging, and for all kinds of things for Indigenous people. But I’ve kind of turned it to my own ends, and work with it in kind of a unique way.

How long do you expect your latest sculpture, “Playin’ Hooky,” to stand?

The] don’t last forever – maybe you’ll get one pretty good year. I’m sure the FWBG piece at the FWBG will be that same kind of time frame.

Standing as high as 18′ tall, and made from red maple and sweetgum from Duke Forest, The Big Easy in 2017 at the Sarah P Duke Gardens of Duke University, Durham, NC. Photo Bill Lefevre

What is the concept behind “Playin’ Hooky?”

I thought this would be a perfect place to go if you were playing hooky. It started out with the idea of looking at seeds and seed pods in Texas, and the shapes of chili peppers and pods from various trees and vines. I came up with these large crescent pieces that have some height to them and interiors that you can walk into.

How was construction in Fort Worth during the winter storm?

The garden closed, but we had to go out anyway because we needed to finish our work. We had to work 3-4 days in the snow and the cold without volunteers. But there was a last-minute gasp when almost the entire garden staff came out to help us clean up the site, move the excess away, rake it up, put the mulch in, and help tidy. It was great. We left there feeling really good about the staff, the place, the volunteers and Texas in general.

Did the weather impact the building process itself?

We’re used to working in all kinds of weather. If it’s raining, we work in the rain. We [continue to work] just not always with the help of volunteers. When it’s cold, it’s hard for people to come out and work. We accept that. I don’t really think it affected the nature of the work in Fort Worth too much. Our hotel had power, and we didn’t lose water, so we had it a bit easier than many of the garden staff who were in situations where they didn’t have either.

The Royals in McKee Botanical Garden, Vero Beach, FL had three elements, each 13′ and with the tallest reaching 21′ high. Photo Bob Joy

Has working with your son changed how you work?

We work well together, and we can think together. Plus we’ve been doing projects together since he was really young – we used to build forts together. Now, I’m the last word, but I listen to his counsel, and I think we amaze people with our ability to work seamlessly. Sam was a history major in college, but he spent an enormous amount of time in the pottery studio at Warren Wilson College [in North Carolina] and he has taken art classes.  So, he has a good understanding of design and good instincts for how things go. He’s become an expert Stickworker. I call him a sculptor, myself.

Like your son, you had a bit of a different start in your schooling.

Yeah, I started in English literature, and then in Hospital Health Administration. But you’re always able to fold those careers into any new effort you make.  If you’re an English literature major, not only do you read, but you try to figure out how to make people want to read more. That’s the same problem sculptors have. They have to organize materials into illusions that excite people’s imaginations and make them want to run over and take a look at the work.

Having an administrative background makes it easier for me to work with organizations.

For anyone, of any age, who’s visited your pieces, and wish to recreate what they’re seen, what do you recommend?

My assistant has made up a little brochure so if schools contact us, we send them this brochure about how they can start a little Stickwork for a school project.

What are some of your most treasured accolades?

Well, when I worked in Waco, the mayor gave me two cowboy hats and I thought that was a high honor, right there. Though he didn’t let me ride his horse

Intrigued? Watch “Stickman,” a five-minute documentary that traces the exhibition’s installation to completion.

To see “Playin’ Hooky, visit Fort Worth Botanic Garden.

The 2017 Thrown for a Loop in Montreal Botanical Garden, Montreal, Canada. Photo Pierre Charbonneau

Cover: Loop de Loop (2019) Morris Arboretum, Philadelphia, PA. Photo Susan Crane

N.L. Thi-Hamrick is devoted to all things that bring joy: good food, writing freely, lots of smiles, and pursuing things that make you feel worthwhile.