SALEM — “Are you making a tree house?”
At the corner of Hawthorne Boulevard and Essex Street in downtown Salem, a little boy presses his face against the iron fence in front of the historic Crowninshield-Bentley House, his eyes wide with wonder. On the grassy lawn, artist Patrick Dougherty and a handful of others are weaving bundles of branches into a small village of fanciful two-story structures, clustered around a large locust tree.
“Stickwork,” the first major outdoor sculptural commission by the Peabody Essex Museum, opens to the public on Saturday, free of charge. For the last two weeks, however, local residents not only have been able to both watch the work being installed, but also participate in its construction: from gathering saplings in Gloucester to building it onsite.
“We thought we’d have a hard time getting volunteers to sign up,” says PEM manager of public relations Whitney Van Dyke. “But we barely had to do anything. Patrick has his followers, and our staff couldn’t wait to work with him.”
Michael Costa, a furniture and cabinet-maker from southern Rhode Island, first learned about the volunteer opportunity from PEM’s website, and has made the 2-3 hour drive to Salem several times to participate in the installation process. “I’d do it every day if I could,” says Costa, who’s known about Dougherty’s work for years. “He has a definite style; but he’s also been really good about saying, ‘if you want to try something, just go for it.’
“Just looking at these things makes me smile,” Costa adds.
Dougherty, whose site-specific works have been seen from the American South to the Scottish Highlands, regularly enlists community members to help create his part-sculptural, part-architectural installations. The work occurs in four-hour shifts, and isn’t dissimilar to building a house: spaces are framed out, walls are finished, and roofs set in place. But instead of 2x4s or brick, the artist’s creations are fashioned solely out of ecologically harvested young trees, tightly woven into solid structures.
“We’ve got a window here, and a door there, and another door that’s defined there,” says Dougherty, pointing out a structure in its skeletal stages to a first-time volunteer. He then grabs a branch from a nearby bundle to demonstrate the basics of his building technique. “Just try to pull them through,” he explains, weaving a long, pliant willow into the base of a wall, “and try to keep the walls compressed. The aesthetics will come later.”
It’s a labor-intensive process. Some species, like the willow, bend readily under volunteers’ gloved hands. Others are more formidable, and require a bit of force to wedge them into the structures. After four hours of steady weaving, skin is scratched and muscles ache from the work; but the pleasure on everyone’s faces suggests they’d be happy to keep going.
An adjacent section of the installation with finished walls offers a glimpse of what it will look like when completed: a curious cross between silo and hobbit hut, with rounded facade and thick branches swooping upwards in broad, gestural arcs that Dougherty likens to line drawing,
“There’s a call of the wild built into the sticks,” says the 70-year-old North Carolinian, who’s been creating his “Stickwork” sculptures for 30 years. “But beyond that, there’s a kind of line quality that you’re using. And at the end of the day you’ve accumulated lines, and then you can enhance that. If ahead of time you get your forms fairly organized, then you can throw your plan away and work by dead reckoning.”
In the Salem installation, Dougherty uses the line work to emphasize and exaggerate the leaning quality built into his design. “It’s a fake leaning in towards the tree,” he says, referring to the locust he artfully incorporated into his plan. “It’s always a reference. I want viewers to be able to walk through and look back from different angles, and see the tree standing there.”
For Dougherty, understanding and respecting each individual site location is crucial to the success of an installation. “There has to be an appropriateness of scale,” he explains, “and the work has to be able to compete with the other well-designed objects around it. Here, there’s a bit of play with fakey architecture: flat on one side, semicircular on the other, to give sense of round structures. It’s like those false fronts in Old West towns — a shadow life of the neighborhoods around it. I’m trying to get a reflection of that, and then render it in something that feels familiar, but that you wouldn’t imagine.”
As the crew works, steady streams of passersby stop to watch and chat about the installation, which they compare to everything from a medieval fort, to a birdhouse, to the forest in “Where the Wild Things Are.” Low-key and extremely affable, Dougherty regularly and graciously pauses to answer questions.
“A good sculpture is one that elicits lots of personal associations as a first line,” he says. “There’s entry into the work, and it reveals itself — you don’t have to tell people about it. And it does so by touching memories about certain things. Of course there’s a conceptual element, and viewers may have other cogitations about the work later on. But their first impressions are of things that are meaningful to them.”
Viewers will be able to explore “Stickwork” for at least a year, possibly two. The end date, as is typical with Dougherty’s installations, is indefinite. “It all depends on the conditions,” he explains. “The works are very resilient, and hold their form for a long time. But we always try to dismantle them while they’re still in good shape.”
“It makes for a kind of bittersweet longing,” he adds, standing by the iron fence and gazing at the rapidly rising structures, “when you imagine you’ve put all this work into it and then it will be gone. But I like making things. And I feel like once I’ve made something, I’ve turned it over to the viewers. So it’s not like it’s being lost in the netherworld, and you’re not going to get value out of it again; you’re getting maximum value at all times, until it comes down.”Stacey Kors can be reached at email@example.com.