Patrick Dougherty's "Square Roots"

July 20, 2008 — I found this oddity of an artwork installation on the grounds of Brown University quite by accident, while stumbling around Providence, Rhode Island, Lovecraft-drunk.

The piece is called Square Roots, and it was created by a North Carolina artist named Patrick Dougherty. He used six tons of dead willow and maple saplings to weave this large caterpillar of interconnected hollow cubic forms. Apparently that’s his thing. He makes large shapes out of giant thatches of woven saplings.

Most public art installations are dumb. They often loom in public spaces like attention-starved children, pretending to be aesthetically pleasing or profoundly challenging, when in fact they’re often just unimaginative and bland. However, Dougherty’s stick work is the opposite. It’s approachable, interesting, and his pieces, now that I've had the chance to research them a bit, don't seem to be attempting to say anything beyond what they are.

Maybe that's why he turns their construction into open community events, the installation being manually shaped in full public view over the course of weeks while hundreds of local volunteers help out. And maybe that's why 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 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. A quick Google search reveals 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 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 the picture in this article doesn't show the work at its freshest. Nor does it really showcase Dougherty’s usual style 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 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 realize hobbit was a big buzzword circa 2006 when this work was created, but 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 a bunch of his pieces in a row, they get a bit monotonous. 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 astounding, especially in person. Well, you’ll be in person, at least.

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.

Hopefully, one day's I'll be rich enough to commission Dougherty to create a giant wicker man on my front lawn. I’ll get Christopher Lee to preside over the unveiling ceremony, and we’ll grill steaks in its pagan innards.


UPDATE: Hey, I've since visited more Patrick Dougherty sculptures. Still no Wicker Man, though: