Patrick Dougherty's hands know what to do.
Standing before a semicircle of rapt Winthrop University students, the Chapel Hill sculptor holds a small length of a sapling in his hands. He's teaching the students how to bend it in preparation for weaving it into a monumental sculpture outside a community performance space in Rock Hill, S.C. If they don't become acquainted with the specific tensile quality of the species of tree they're using, he warns, they'll snap it in two.
Dougherty's restless hands are captured in this scene from Bending Sticks: The Sculpture of Patrick Dougherty, a film by Penelope Maunsell and Kenny Dalsheimer that premieres at Durham's Carolina Theatre on Sunday afternoon.
Supported by the Southern Documentary Fund, the film examines the artist's life and nearly 30-year career, during which he's created over 230 site-specific, ephemeral works by interweaving thousands of locally culled tree saplings into giant windblown architectural forms and figural tendrils.
Often whimsical and fun, Dougherty's sculptures tend to provoke awed smiles in adults and manic exploration by children. Maunsell and Dalsheimer, who last collaborated on a film about the Georges Rousse trompe l'oeil photographic project in downtown Durham, transfer that wonder to the screen, shooting the artist at work with teams of volunteers at five recent Dougherty project sites. In addition to the Rock Hill piece, the film documents outdoor sculptures at the Bascom Art Center in the North Carolina mountains and at the Dumbarton Oaks gardens in Washington, D.C. Footage also covers indoor pieces at the North Carolina Museum of Art (NCMA) and at Cassilhaus in Chapel Hill, where Dougherty was a resident artist in spring of 2010. (Cassilhaus is also the residence of the film's executive producer Frank Konhaus and architect Ellen Cassilly. Konhaus also produced Dalsheimer and Maunsell's Bending Space: George Rousse and the Durham Project.)
Bending Sticks is actually over 20 years in the making. After a breathtaking first encounter with Dougherty's work at the Durham Arts Council, Maunsell soon saw another at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Mass.
"It was winter and it was snowing," she remembers, "and there was a Patrick piece that sort of wrapped the turrets of this museum and fell down the side of it, and there was a little hut he'd built. I was transported by that."
In addition to giving unprecedented vantages of the works of one of the state's internationally known contemporary artists, Bending Sticks takes a deep look into Dougherty's process from before the idea stage through the final execution of the work.
In one scene, he's sheepishly holding his sketchbook before an empty wall amid the construction of the new building at the NCMA.
"I usually make some word associations with the site," he murmurs. "I write everything down, no matter how nutty it is."
Beneath penciled sketches of what looks like tangled hair are the phrases "turmoil and starry night," "broad strokes and eddies" and "galaxies/star chart."
From out of these scrawled fragments, diners at the museum's restaurant now enjoy cocktails and entrees beneath "Out of the Box," a 75-foot frieze of furious spirals of red maple emanating from a tornado-like vortex that emerges from the floor. The chaos is nonetheless contained within a fairly neat rectangle, giving the impression of looking out a window at approaching storm clouds. Dougherty captures uncontrolled vitality without being visually intimidating.
His wife, Linda, the chief curator and curator of contemporary art at the NCMA, is one of many family members, friends and colleagues who discuss his work in the film, including NCMA director Larry Wheeler and noted topiarist Pearl Fryar. His sister, the poet Kate Farrell, adds an eloquent narration of several vivid childhood memories that reveal the artist's predisposition toward stick work from youth.
But the star of the film is Dougherty's process, even more than the man or his works. Surprisingly ordinary in the early stage of each piece, his worksites quickly produce yawning caverns or anthropomorphic walls. Maunsell and Dalsheimer use time-lapse footage, often from tricky panoramic vantages, to show the forms almost shawling out of the ground.
"In order to get a shot, you have to have a little bit of acrobat in your blood," Dalsheimer says, recalling the Rock Hill church tower shaft they had to climb, their equipment dangling from a rope.
"We had technical difficulties and we were calling Kodak and it was freezing cold and the wind was blowing. That was pretty rough," Maunsell adds. "There were moments in there when I was trying not to cry from frustration."
The filmmakers also coax great technical details out of the artist. While piloting a car, Dougherty reads the landscape aloud to the camera, spotting different kinds of trees and narrating their qualities. Between complaints about the other drivers on the road, he passes judgment upon the beech (they peskily retain their leaves), the maple ("they're a great stick") and the Russian olive (brittle, with thorns).
"It's pretty impressive how much he knows about the science of sticks," Dalsheimer says, appreciating how Dougherty's attention fed back into his camera work. "The more time you spend with him, the more you begin to see color and texture, the incredible potential of the medium, that it's a palette that the average person doesn't usually see. That's something that drew my eye. I tend to like extreme close-ups."
That's not lost on Dougherty, who commented on the film from the site of an in-progress work on a campus quad at Fresno State University in California. He's particularly excited about how Bending Sticks captures the scale, and therefore the immediacy, of his work.
"I feel that there's some real value in appreciating things the moment you see them," he says. "Pictures don't do these works justice. You actually need to go there and look. The great thing about the film is that you get a sense of the piece that you couldn't get in a photo."
But the temporary nature of these sculptures—one of the most interesting aspects of his work and providing insight into his unpretentious approach—is only discussed, not backed up with footage. Dougherty's outdoor sculptures are usually disassembled or come down after two years, "while they still look good," as the artist notes in the film. Sites are then haunted by their absence, a testament to how talented Dougherty is at creating site-specific work.
Some sites even celebrate the works coming down as vigorously as they introduced them to the public in the first place. The film shows a striking still from a sculpture-burning festival held in Dingwall, Scotland, to bring down a cluster of distended basket shapes called "Close Ties," but viewers may regret the lack of a video record of this Wicker Man-like conflagration.
Bending Sticks sings of the startling magic of how Dougherty's sculptures come together from nothing but truckloads of sticks, and hums the tune of their breathtaking design. It hits the obligatory biographical notes well, particularly through Farrell's words, and gives a fair psychological sketch of the public side of Dougherty himself. But its hand hovers over the more conceptual notes, hitting them only occasionally in asides such as, "You work yourself into an altered state, and in that state things mean more to you."
Handling saplings, Dougherty's hands play those notes all day, which makes this film worth celebrating.
This article appeared in print with the headline "The wicker man."