On a crisp morning in late March, with the fog still hanging like curtains around the mountains, Patrick Dougherty, his son Sam, and their team were already at work on the site of their latest installation, climbing scaffolding and twisting twigs to create a massive structure — the size of a building — built from discarded brush, branches, and twigs of sapling trees. “Free as a Bird (2021)” was commissioned by the Biltmore Estate to coincide with its annual Biltmore Blooms festival, running through late May, though it will stay up through September.
While the more than 300 stick sculptures Dougherty has created since 1975 always look different, this one, like many of them, resembles some whimsical dwelling, a windswept and nest-like home of sticks. You can almost imagine a human-sized bird poking its head through a window of the structure to greet you. “The materials are unique,” Dougherty says, noting that, despite the massive scale of the projects, they are largely improvisational. “Each pile [of saplings] that we get is really different. We just finished using dogwood and American elm.”
He goes on, “These sticks have the overtones of the woods, but it also aligns with the way you draw. If you notice, the structure seems to move, and that movement is caused by organizing all of the tapers in one direction. When you strike a piece of paper with a pencil, you hit it with one weight and finish it off with another; basically, you make a lot of tapered lines. We are just organizing those tapers.”
Visitors are welcome to wander through the mythical structure and explore it completely.
Dougherty has crafted installments around the globe — everywhere from a temple in Japan to a medieval castle in France to an arts center in Ireland; and stateside from Idaho to Minnesota to Arizona. Because he uses refuse sapling trees, he sees his work as an expression of environmentalism. “Most of the saplings that we use are a product of urbanization. Between the time that a developer cuts the trees and puts their foundation in, lots of saplings come up. So I’m working in those areas to gather our materials.”