The piece is called Square Roots, and it was created by a North Carolina artist named Patrick Dougherty, who used six tons of dead willow and maple saplings to weave this large caterpillar of interconnected hollow cubic forms on the grounds of Brown. Apparently that’s his thing. He makes large shapes out of giant masses of woven saplings. You’re didn’t get past grounds of Brown, did you?
I really don’t know how I feel about non-traditional art mediums. Part of me thinks that it’s just a little too far on the craft side of “arts and crafts,” which is fine for Martha Stewart or a Kindergarten class, but seems beneath those who get actual monetary commissions and grants to create art installations. Sometimes I think that workers in these types of media are just too lazy or unskilled to chip away at a marble block, and sometimes I think they’re too creative to merely add yet another cold, nude form to our communal archive of sculpture. I just want one thing in my life that I’m not conflicted about.
Wait, I do have one of those. I am completely unanimous in the belief that most non-traditional art installations are hugely pretentious. They usually loom in public spaces like attention-starved children and pretend to be aesthetically pleasing or profoundly challenging, when in fact they’re often just silly, unimaginative, and unaffecting. However, Dougherty’s stick work is the opposite. It’s approachable, interesting, and his pieces never seem to be attempting to say anything beyond what they are. You can kind of see this in the way that he turns their construction into open community events, with the installation being manually shaped in full public view over the course of weeks while hundreds of local volunteers help out. Um, and the fact that he uses puns to dub his artwork.
Perhaps this bit of humility in his work stems from the fact that each piece is completely temporary (ephemeral, I think, is the art-world way to phrase that). And I don’t mean they’re only exhibited temporarily. I mean that because they’re made of organic materials, they literal decay on the spot until after a couple of years they become this saggy, proto-mulch pile of a mess that is then thrown out like bags of yard clippings. Sad, but so is everything else in the world. However, a quick Google search will reveal images of all of his past works, including many videos documenting their actual creation. Ephemeral sure doesn’t mean what it used to.
In fact, Square Roots itself no longer stands and was relegated to compost in March 2008 when it was basically destroyed by a falling elm. God’s nature art beats Dougherty’s nature art. I saw the piece in October of 2007, exactly a year after its original creation, so I don’t think the picture included in this article represents the work at its freshest. Or really represents Dougherty’s usual subject matter either, now that I think about it. Square Roots is probably one of Dougherty’s less whimsical pieces. But it’s the only one I’ve ever walked through, so that’s why we’re talking about it.
Now, not to divulge my sources, but near the artwork was a plaque inset into the ground that explained the origin of the piece and the story of its creator. I’ve included an image of it with this article, so I won’t go into detail, but I would like to take exception to something phrased within it. The plaque claims Dougherty’s work has been described as “hobbit-like.” I do realize hobbit was a big buzzword circa 2006 when this work was created, it’s wholly irrelevant here. Tolkien’s fantasy creatures were hole dwellers (“In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit.”). They weren’t sylvan or woodsy or any other adjective that could appropriately be used to describe Dougherty’s work. I mean, hobbit-like applies to the Homo floresiensis skeleton, Peter Vetsch architecture, and Dudley Moore. But not Dougherty’s dead topiary. If it was 1983, I’m sure they’d call it Ewokian. And they would still be wrong. But they’d be closer.
Back from tangents, the real downside to Dougherty’s art is that if you look at the total sum of it, it gets a bit monotonous. That’s because all of his pieces are similar in color and texture due to his materials, so there’s an unsurprising uniformity to them all. However, taken individually, they’re each pretty astounding, especially in person. Well, you’ll be in person, at least. He’s found a niche, though, so I envy him, and will probably stop by any of installations I happen upon. His website offers a schedule of his other installations, in case you’re interested. If you’re not, I stink at writing. I usually don’t need a qualifying phrase for that statement.
My official stance on the matter is that I’m all for Mr. Dougherty’s work. Enough, in fact, that I want to commission him to create a giant wicker man in my front lawn. I’ll get Christopher Lee to preside over the unveiling ceremony, and we’ll grill steaks in its pagan innards.
And there you go. A rather short article as far as O.T.I.S. entries go. Expect more of these as I slowly deplete the word store in my brain. Then hopefully I’ll finally be at peace.
Other OTIS visits to Patrick Dougherty sculptures: