Eliciting Wonder: Working Alongside Patrick and Sam Dougherty

As we prepare to open the “Tilt-a-Whirl” installation for Patrick Dougherty’s Stickwork, the team at Holden Forests & Gardens would like to thank our volunteers who worked alongside Patrick and his son Sam to create the work of art. Working 8 hours a day, this sculpture was built over the course of 16 days. Janine and Jimm Poleman from Munson were two of the people that helped to build the massive work of art. We took a moment to learn more about the experience from their perspective.

You were a significant part of the team that volunteered to create Patrick Dougherty’s newest Stickwork. Tell us about the experience.

Jimm: It exceeded any and all expectations.  It was intensive work and the hours seemed to go by like minutes. We arrived with no insight into Patrick or Sam’s personalities and we left feeling like we found friends and kin. The structure literally grows and comes quickly into shape under their direction with a bunch of people who don’t know each other and have no experience in this work and it all feels very natural.  And everyone leaves as friends.

How did you learn about the opportunity?

 Janine: We’ve been fans of Patrick’s work for years, and were so thrilled when it was announced he would be installing a piece in March at the Cleveland Botanical Garden…then subsequently crushed when the spring schedule was canceled due to the Covid-19 outbreak. It was only later when I was reading more about his work & method that I learned he works with a team of local volunteers for each of his sculptures. I reached out to Patrick via his Stickwork website that Saturday in mid July and told him that we would love to be involved if and when the world allowed for such things again – and he replied, saying that Holden would now be the Cleveland host site, that work would commence in August and the coordination of volunteers was underway. Ha!

Jimm: Janine!

What was one of your favorite moments?

Jimm: The best part of this experience is when your confidence flips from inadequacy to comfort.   At first you think “I’m ruining this guy’s art!” and grow to: “Hey! This piece includes part of me!”

Describe the process, what did Patrick teach you about how to create the sculpture.

 Jimm: Patrick is not a micromanager.  He gives you a basic goal with a simple guiding philosophy such as “hide this element while respecting the flow of direction” and really just wants you to get started.  Then his guidance and corrections are only positive and reaffirming.  He might say “maybe you could go in here” or “try to focus on this size of branch”.  He is a gentleman and a gentle man.  This is a collaborative effort, and he somehow gets us into his vision very quickly with very few words, which is awe-inspiring and in my opinion, the hallmark of a great artist; his work makes you feel like it was already in you all along.

Janine:  Patrick’s method is totally fascinating to see in action – he comes to the project with this developing vision of the piece he wants to execute in his mind, largely informed by the site itself, but this vision and its process is disclosed to the volunteer crew in a sort of piecemeal fashion, allowing for focus on the task at hand and a gradual reveal of the final sculpture. He offers clear instruction with a gentle manner and invites a great deal of individual experimentation – this is intuitive work, and every participant is given the opportunity to develop a feel for the day’s assignment, and a chance to make their own mark.  He’s incredibly good at helping his crew develop confidence in their efforts.

The most elemental structural components are installed first – these are the large upright pieces that will inform the scope of the form. Those are bent and joined and added onto, layer after layer of willow branches, first in a thick matrix to bolster and strengthen the form, then in grand sweeping gestures that create the visual movement, then in finer and finer detail until, in the last few days, the work becomes about editing – perfecting and polishing the surface of the sculpture by removing any irregularities, anything that would interrupt the visual flow of the piece.  It was so lovely to be able to participate in each of the stages and see it come to life in your hands.

Holden Forests & Garden’s mission is to connect people to the wonder and beauty of plants and trees – did this experience do this? How did it change you? 

Janine: The sculptures are immersive, not only because of their size, but also because they are deeply moving – they elicit wonder! There is so much to say about the strength and resilience and the persistence of trees.  It’s humbling and joyful to work with them as both inspiration and raw material.

Jimm: Absolutely.  Smelling and bending freshly cut willow is a connecting experience.   Its change in personality once soaked with rain lets you know it’s still alive in some respect.

We have known Patrick’s work for a lot of years and my favorite observation has always been “anyone in the history of humans could have done this”. And who knows?  If anything like this has been done to this degree in history, it is not likely that it would show up in the fossil record. It is primitive in the truest sense, which speaks to me.  When I say, “his work makes you feel like it was already in you all along”, it’s like it’s in our DNA. If it changed me, it was only to find that in myself.