Text by Jon Letman | Images by John Hook and Meagan Suzuki
Patrick Dougherty had been on Kaua‘i less than 24 hours when he found himself on a hillside in the rain leading an effort to harvest truckloads of eucalyptus, ironwood, oleander, and bamboo. These plants, all commonly found in Hawai‘i but none of them native, were growing on a ridge above Lāwa‘i Valley, home of the National Tropical Botanical Garden’s McBryde Garden.
Dougherty, who is an artist, not a botanist, didn’t come to Kaua‘i to battle potentially invasive plants, but to harvest them as building material. The internationally renowned sculptor specializes in what he calls “stickwork,” a technique that involves wrapping and twisting sticks and saplings that have been stripped of their leaves into sculptures that can be as large as a small house. Over three decades, Dougherty, who hails from North Carolina, has created such sculptures around the world.
“Patrick’s style is an ideal fit with the aesthetics of the garden,” says NTBG’s exhibit and graphic design manager, Wing Fong. “He transformed something that’s invasive into something that enhances our guests’ experience in the garden.” For Dougherty, his creations are an expression of humanity’s shared primal understanding of the natural world. “A good sculpture causes lots of personal associations, and that can be a starting point,” Dougherty says. “They’re sticks when they’re in the forest, but when they come out, then you see their potential for mark-making. Rather than using a pencil, you use your whole body to draw and fulfill a surface.” He explains that just as brushstrokes begin with one weight and end with another, sticks are thicker on one end than the other. That natural tapering, when organized just so, gives his creations a sense of animation, suggesting natural movements like a flowing stream, air currents, or rising smoke.
Dougherty’s stickwork at NTBG’s McBryde Garden, an octagonal structure named “Birthday Palace” in honor of the garden’s golden anniversary, was built in 16 eucalyptus-scented days with the efforts of more than 100 volunteers and garden staff. It stands in the shade of two large trees, a Parkia timoriana and Cassia grandis, and features four open doorways spaced evenly around the structure that frame subtly differing garden views and allow the tradewinds to blow through. A spire of sticks rises 25 feet to an open dome, revealing the sprawling canopy and sky above.
This creation at McBryde Garden is Dougherty’s 257th installation. Throughout the years, he has found inspiration in everything from Japanese ikebana and Zen gardens to the “survival architecture” of Brazilian favelas and tribal forest dwellings. His sculptures take on fantastic yet familiar forms—some resemble flower vases or water pitchers, giant floating chains or windblown candles. Others look like enormous wicker baskets, spinning tops, mythical forest creatures, clumps of mushrooms, or straw castles for gnomes. Many have windows, doorways, walls, and roofs that define an interior and exterior space, but the sticks themselves defy such delineation.
Regardless of where he is or what shape the sculpture takes, Dougherty stresses the importance of having the flexibility to work with whatever materials are at hand. And, he says, his work reflects nature’s impermanence. His organic sculptures usually remain standing for one to two years.
Interacting with Dougherty’s stickwork installations evokes memories of running through the woods as a child, building a fort in the backyard, or finding a bird’s nest. It awakens a long-dormant urge to explore, which Dougherty calls “the shadow of our hunting and gathering past.” It transports us to another indefinite time in the past when the unexpected discovery of a hollow in an overgrown briar or wooded thicket provided us a shelter for the body, a sanctuary for the mind, and a garden for the imagination.