We’ve become accustomed to a number of preconceived notions about the life of an artist; often, we picture them as colorful and eccentric, right-brained individuals, who work irregular hours, wear paint-splattered clothes, and are at the mercy of the muses, prone to sporadic bouts of creative genius. The “Artist” has undergone various transformations and has become an almost mythical member of society. Patrick Dougherty, however, contradicts every stereotypical assumption. From his unique educational training and awe-inspiring stickworks to his generous collaborative approach to public-art installation, Dougherty’s work represents so much more than a temporary structure. Windswept, his most recent work is certainly no exception.
The work is smelled before it is seen. A strong aroma of earth and trees permeates the space at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art. Instead of using the two-dimensional lines of ink or pencil, Dougherty prefers sketching with the three-dimensional contours of willow saplings—young trees that are simultaneously malleable and deterministic—to create sweeping sculptural installations. “The woods are like walking into a drawing,” says Dougherty. “Similarly, I think of my work as a drawing—playing with the lines of the saplings but to a degree controlled by the material I’ve happened to get.” This construction material conjures nostalgic images of child’s play in a forest full of imaginary friends and adventure and gives the pieces their whimsical and mysterious aura. The monumental scale of his work inspires a sense of awe, but is not so imposing as to discourage participation. On the contrary, in addition to inviting volunteers to help assemble the work during the installation process, Dougherty’s final product always invites viewers of all ages to enter a world of pretend and move around, about, and through the sculpture.
Despite having worked with this medium for several decades, the artist continues to find ways to experiment with techniques. In Windswept, matrices of sapling trunks and branches were laid out and woven like a textile by local volunteers. Unique constructional considerations also were made since, unlike most of his work, the piece inhabits an indoor space. This is a challenging aspect for any installation artist, but Dougherty embraces the adage “creativity loves constraint.” He asks himself, “What does this space have to offer? Windows? Walkways? Water features?” and uses those elements to create an entirely new piece customized for the community and influenced by the surroundings. Inspired by the mountains, Windswept mimics the sloping lines and crevices of the Utah landscape and is discretely anchored by sand-filled bases. While Dougherty’s work is distinctive and recognizable, Windswept’s originality and creative techniques truly make it one of a kind.
Part of the wisdom of his process is his acceptance of the subconscious’ role in decision-making. He admits, “I’ve learned to live with discomfort and be aware of the small inklings that make the work what it is. Usually I have two days of ‘What am I going to do?’ But that pressure can breed creativity.” He further emphasizes the importance of not shutting out the world of ideas: “You can get in other frames of mind – the creative mind. You can go and get it if you practice being in that mindset.” Creativity is not just a whim, then, but an exercise, and one that Dougherty employs regularly. Rather than waiting for a stroke of inspiration, Dougherty’s pattern of consistent work is what fosters a creative mentality. He demonstrates a tremendous amount of work ethic and discipline, showing up and working on a space from 8-5, seven days a week, for three weeks in a row. After one week in between, he sets to work on the next project, completing the cycle over again.
Due to the nature of his materials, Dougherty takes on a variety of fluctuating identities: sculptor, architect, illustrator, basket weaver, nest maker, gardener. The fulfillment of each of these roles is instrumental in the completion of each project. Further informing his work is the artist’s diverse educational background. His studies in English at the University of North Carolina and graduate work in Hospital and Health Administration may initially seem tangential to his later education in art history and sculpture. However, according to Dougherty, “each fraction of the career is embedded and rolled into the next thing. The novel, for example, is constructed from the power of language and the layering of words, building an illusion much like a sculpture. Health administration is all about working with organizations, and I work with organizations every day—cities, institutions, the public. All of this contributes to my current work. I have never gone backwards.”
At the core of his motivations for art making is a profound understanding of the artistic purpose. “Art is supposed to move you and stir your feelings. So, as an artist, you are trying to extend people’s ability to feel and stir them behind the moment.” This is perhaps why collaboration has become such a contributing factor in the success of his work. Dougherty’s inclusion of local volunteers during the creation of Windswept is no different than any other piece. He has always sought to make the community a part of his process and embraced the raw, untrained, unpredictable aspects of working with volunteers. “The ideas from these associations and conversations have a very real influence on your work,” Dougherty says. “More often I will be discussing the piece with a house painter rather than a fine arts painter.” This further encourages a sense of democracy in spaces that often have been considered “highbrow” and pushes back against the commodification of art.
Dougherty’s credibility as a worker, sculptor, and artistic ambassador continues to have an impact wherever he goes. Not only is Dougherty providing an optimal experience for those who work with him personally, but he is paving the way for other contemporary artists down the road and dispelling many myths about the artist. The sculpture is merely an excuse to have an enormous amount of play and build bridges between artists, institutions, and the public.
Patrick Dougherty’s Windswept opens at the Brigham Young University Museum of Art Friday, December 7, 2018 and continues through October 19, 2019.
Maddie graduated from Brigham Young University with a BA in Music, BA in Interdisciplinary Humanities, and Minor in Art History in 2018. She has assisted in the curation of art and multimedia exhibitions throughout Utah–as a Curatorial Fellow at the BYU Museum of Art (2016-2018) and an independent curator (2013- Present).