Reston Town Center is a just few square blocks of right-angled streets set amid the vermicelli of the planned community’s winding lanes, bike paths and cul-de-sacs. Now it’s home to another ode to the twisting, meandering forms found in nature: a large, nestlike installation by Patrick Dougherty.
From a distance, the untitled 14-foot-high sculpture in Reston Town Square Park suggests an eccentric, oversize basket. Up close, or from the inside, it suggests a cross between a playhouse and an immature woodland of young, thin-trunked trees.
Based in North Carolina, Dougherty spends about three out of every four weeks on the road, cutting and weaving saplings into undulating constructions that have been shown around the country, as well as in Europe and Japan. He made his first one in 1982, and has built more than 250 since then.
His approach is largely intuitive. “You throw the plans away 10 percent into the project,” he said in an April interview, as the Reston piece was nearing completion. “And then you start letting the material determine what it will do.”
Photographs of some of Dougherty’s other environmental sculptures are on display across the street from the park at the Greater Reston Arts Center, one of the project’s sponsors. The GRACE exhibition, which continues through July 3, also includes “weed shrines” by Patterson Clark, a Washington Post graphic artist who makes paper, ink and wooden frames exclusively from invasive plant species.
Dougherty’s work may be sculpture, but it also involves drawing, since each wooden curve is a sort of line. Most of the time — and certainly here in Reston — his pieces also are architecture. Although a few of his installations are attached to buildings, and occasionally built indoors, the bulk of them are free-standing, offering views meant to be experienced from both inside and out. They are, quite literally, tree houses.
The work is done mostly by hand, using only several identical Swiss-made pruning shears. Dougherty calls his style “simplicity, plus.” He makes only one concession to building codes: He treats the wood with fire retardant.
Several windows and entrances afford visitors more than one way of experiencing the work. From the inside, the installation appears as a series of rooms that flow in much the same organic way that the interwoven saplings wrap around the hickory uprights that support them. (Dougherty says he likes “a little dizziness about directionality.”) As in nature, there is no designated path or hierarchy of spaces.
“You’re constantly strategizing to get people’s interest,” Dougherty says. “It’s going to be much more effective if they walk through it.”
The artist begins by creating a skeletal framework, or “canvas,” as he calls it, embellishing it with curved, crosshatched lengths of wood as he goes. Some of the material is local, culled by the artist and volunteers from the community from out-of-the-way places. But Dougherty doesn’t insist on home-grown materials; the Reston piece includes leftover willow from a recently completed project in Philadelphia.
Like the forests and grasslands that the work, in part, evokes, Dougherty’s installation changes with the weather. When the sun shines through it, its surface seems to shimmer with jewel-like facets. The work’s airiness offers a delicate contrast to the stolid rectangular high-rises that flank the park.
Each of the artist’s sculptures is site-responsive, and in this case the proximity of tall buildings influenced the design. Dougherty says that the “ribbon of movement” that runs around the top of the structure, unifying its forms, is best viewed from above.
Although the artist doesn’t always work in such a public venue, he’s not one of those Earth artists who prefers seclusion, and whose work is most often seen in drawings or photographs. British artist Andy Goldsworthy, for example, is known for creating remote works out of natural materials that are likely (or certain) to decay.
The Reston installation will fade away, too, although not as quickly as Goldsworthy's ephemeral assemblages of ice, snow and flower petals. Entropy, however, is not Dougherty’s theme. The artist expects the structure to stand for about two years, and he will let its sponsors decide when to remove it.
“I always think that you need to take a work in public down before it becomes disheveled,” he says. “The line between trash and treasure is very thin with sticks.”
For the time being, though, that line is still finely drawn.
Jenkins is a freelance writer.
Reston Town Center Park, 12001 Market St., Reston. 703-471-9242. www.restonarts.org.
Dates: On display for about two years.