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‘Stickwork’ at Federation Square

American artist Patrick Dougherty brings his arboreal creations to the heart of Melbourne. Mandi Keighran reports.

Most adults have fond memories of roaming woods or bushland, imagination running wild, building shelters from sticks and leaves, the land around them becoming far more than the sum of its parts. For award-winning US artist, Patrick Dougherty, these childhood games have developed into a serious art career.

“My whole effort to become a sculptor as an adult dovetailed with a secret childhood dream to become an artist,” says Dougherty. “I believe that one’s childhood shapes a sculptor’s choice of materials. For me, it was growing up in the woodlands of North Carolina, which are overgrown with small trees and where forests are a tangle of intersecting natural lines.”

Dougherty’s sculptures are organic forms, intricately woven from saplings and other organic matter. The forms are not pre-determined, but rather are guided by variables such as weather and material pliability.

The dynamic sculptures also hint at life cycles and impermanence. Over a three-week build period, they seemingly grow, and as the organic matter decomposes, the sculptural forms gradually decay, once again becoming a part of the landscape.

Federation Square will soon be transformed into Doughtery’s open-air studio, as he completes a three-week build ofStickworks. The new sculpture is the first of Dougherty’s works to be completed in Australia, and was commissioned to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the Melbourne icon.

Over the course of the build, Doughtery will weave and bend over five tonnes of willow and eucalypt into one of his expressive sculptural forms. The project will also assist Melbourne Water in the clearing of willow, which is classed as a weed in Victoria, from key water catchment areas around Melbourne.

Visitors to Federation Square will be witness to the art making process, and each will read a different meaning into the work. “My viewers see stick castles, lairs, nests, architectural follies,” says Dougherty. “They remember moments in the woods with their favourite trees. I hear stories about the Garden of Eden, and secrets about first dates. Some viewers touch the surfaces and talk about the momentum of wind or other forces of the natural world. Those that pass by are often compelled to explore the sculpture’s strange shapes and hidden passages.”

For the artist, however, his work represents a connection with humanity’s primitive past. “Picking up a stick and bending it seems to give me big ideas,” says Dougherty. “I think this ‘know how’ is one that every human carries as a legacy from our hunting and gathering past.”