North Carolina sculptor Patrick Dougherty, has an affinity for forming art from nature. His sprawling woven-stick installation, “Easy Rider,” stands on the grassy ellipse at Dumbarton Oaks. Kaufman spoke with the artist for her Aug. 7 Sunday Arts feature on natural architecture.
Below is a continuum of their conversation.
In planning his sculpture for the formal, tree-ringed space in the Georgetown garden, Dougherty said, “I was really thinking about how the natural world has been conscripted as manmade architecture. You don’t think about nature as being staid or over-organized, you think of it as having a life of its own. But there, they’re pruning it and fixing it up like a big living room. My idea was to throw that off kilter and bring in a natural force.”
“Easy Rider” conveys a strong feeling of energy; the figures seem to be skimming the ground, brushing past the trees. Here’s how Dougherty achieved that effect: “Part of it is just a trick. You use line in a way that lightens the load. You have this object, and if you put fat lines right at the ground level, it sits...Then if you put little looping lines there, you lift it up, make it look lighter and more vibrant, make it look like it’s moving away.” In this way, he said, it becomes “light and airy and weightless and ephemeral.”
If his work brings birds’ nests to mind, you’re not alone. Dougherty told me that when he watched avian nest-building, “I realized they were sensitive to the material in the same way I was. There are limitations with the material, and then there is maximizing what you can do with it. The shaft, it’ll bend a certain amount. What you can do with it is up to you.”
Birds, he said, “make many of the same decisions that I make. And certainly for them, there’s a sense of beauty counting. A lot of times that has to do with density--if you have something thick here and thin there. And the repetitive act can add up to a kind of esthetic. Let’s say, starting with the small end and pulling the big end out. All of a sudden, a kind of esthetic emerges. You stop thinking of it as a random act and start seeing it as an art-making act. You start thinking these birds have a sense of esthetic. They’re thinking about beauty and grace.”
As he does with most of his installations around the world, Dougherty built the Dumbarton Oaks work with the help of dozens of volunteers. And truckloads of sticks.
“Not only do I like the volunteer participation in that transaction,” Dougherty said, “but I like to see all the people around the margins becoming intensely involved in the process...There’s the disbelief in the first few days that this trashy material could become something.”