This morning, installation artist Patrick Dougherty (above center), who creates whimsical woven structures from saplings and twigs, completed the first site-specific sculpture to ever be commissioned by the Brooklyn Botanic Garden (BBG).
Dougherty began construction of the large-scale sculpture on Aug. 5 in the Plant Family Collection meadow, and over the next three weeks enlisted the help of about 50 volunteers to build the piece. The finished work is comprised of several structures that resemble huts and are linked together from above by a network of arches.
“It’s a retreat for feral children and wayward adults,” Dougherty said.
Willow branches from the nonnative species salix atrocinerea — designated as an invasive species in New York State — make up the installation. This material was collected from Ocean Breeze Park on Staten Island. It’s supplemented by branches from BBG’s collection of cherry trees.
To build the structures, 30-inch holes were dug into the ground to anchor the foundational branches, and additional material was woven in from there. As the structure got larger, scaffolding was constructed around it so workers could weave up to more than 10 feet.
When thinking of the overall design, Dougherty wanted the piece to “fill the space in an adequate way,” and used a nearby tree whose branches hung above as a guide.
“You’re working as though you’re building a drawing,” he said.
During the construction process, garden visitors could watch Dougherty and the volunteers build the sculpture. Toward the end of the process, he said, a four-year-old visiting with her mother saw it said, “It looks like natural history!” So Dougherty decided to name the piece, “Natural History.”
The sculpture will be on display in the garden for a year — commemorating the institution’s centennial — so visitors can see it throughout the seasons, said BBG spokesperson Kate Blumm.
“We want to take it down while it still looks good,” said Dougherty.
Dougherty has been constructing large-scale sculptures out of tree branches since the early 1980s, but started making a living at it around 1985, he said.
He’s done more than 200 installations around the world, and for him, the process of making art is as important as the end result. He is also publishing a book of photographs of past projects, called Stickwork.
As is evident by the fact that he involved so many volunteers in his craft, he feels that we all have “stickwork” within us.
“Kids seem to know everything about sticks, so we all seem to know at one point,” he said.