Dougherty Guides Volunteers in Stick Sculpture Project at Kentucky Museum at WKU

Oct 9, 2018

A community art project in Kentucky involves tramping around in the woods and cutting down young trees to create a large-scale sculpture made from sticks. The Western Kentucky University project is led by a sculptor whose studio is the outdoors.

Artist Patrick Dougherty organizes volunteers who have come out on a clear, autumn morning to 160 acres of wilderness in Allen County, Kentucky, about half an hour south of Bowling Green.

“You can work in teams, if you want to, or work alone, however you want to do it," said Dougherty. "One person can cut and the other person can drag out and bundle, I mean and drop it, and then we’ll have a bundling crew bundle.”


The property is owned by WKU Director of Environmental Health and Safety David Oliver, who first collaborated on the project in his professional role when Dougherty was planning the Kentucky installation. When the artist came to the Bluegrass State to take a look at four different pieces of property, it turned out that Oliver’s acreage proved best for gathering the smaller sticks needed for the sculpture.

Oliver said his family has owned the land since the late 1800s and they keep it in its natural state and maintain it for wildlife. Oliver said cutting the small saplings needed for the project will allow the larger ones to be healthier. 

“We’re just custodians of the forest. We work very closely with a forester in harvesting trees and doing forest management, so this just fits right with our plan,” said Oliver. “It’s not going to hurt the forest at all, and it’s for a good project.”

Doughtery outlines the plan for harvesting - cut and bundle young poplar trees, maybe a few small maples, and load them on a trailer.

“So maybe I’ll start bundling so you can see how it’s done,” said Dougherty.

Dougherty describes himself as a sculptor who uses elements of architecture and basket making. He’s developed a smoothly functioning procedure for his large-scale stick sculptures after creating 300 of them across the U.S. and in Australia, Japan and Europe. 

“Do you want the different sizes?" “Yeah, we’ll use all the sizes,”  “All in the same bundle?” “Yeah.”

These cut saplings will be trucked to the grounds of the Kentucky Museum at Western Kentucky University.

“We’re kind of committed to this walkway in front of the museum,” said Dougherty. “And then trying to make some kind of a gateway situation, whatever that means, a building size kind of thing, whether it’s the Arc de Triomphe or whatever.”

Dougherty lives in Chapel Hill, North Carolina and is in Kentucky for three weeks working with volunteers on this installation.

“There’s a way of making community, as well. People help build it," said Dougherty. "We really enjoy the people we meet and appreciate the help we get.”

One of the volunteers is Anne Heintzman, who is on the WKU faculty and works with the Kentucky Museum.

“This sort of activity, activism, hands-on project is ideal," said Heintzman. "I have organized a makerspace on WKU’s campus and this is so much part of that, and I’ve encouraged my students to volunteer.”

Mckenzie Johnson is a WKU senior from Princeton in Caldwell County majoring in art history and anthropology, with a minor in folk studies.

“I’m doing this for my class, but it is also interesting to see the process of what an artist that does folk craft, in a way, does for big exhibits and stuff, and the processes and efforts it takes,” said Johnson.

Volunteer Ole Torgersen said he was glad to hear from a friend that Doughtery was coming to Kentucky.

“I saw one of Patrick’s works on television a while back,” said Torgersen. “And then I couldn’t miss it.”

Artist Page Candler lives in Campbellsville and also knew of Doughtery’s work.

“I got a book of his a few years ago and found it very inspiring,” said Candler, who makes baskets from materials like willow and honeysuckle.

“That’s one of the things about Kentucky and baskets, there's so many natural materials,” said Candler. “So I’m used to being in the woods. I love it.”

Alice Underwood is an artist from Lexington, Kentucky who came to volunteer with a friend. She works with oil paints, but is fascinated by Dougherty’s stick art.  

“I love it. I love being outside. I think there’s no greater art than outside,” said Underwood. “And I like the fact that his whole thing is temporary, and I think that’s an interesting aspect of it.”

Underwood says the temporary nature of the stick sculpture got her thinking.

“Well, at first it bothered me. And then I started thinking about that’s part of it, is the fact that it deteriorates and goes away eventually,” said Underwood. “And so you have to enjoy it while it’s there. You have to grab it by the moment, or in the moment, maybe I should say.”

Dougherty says his projects usually last about two years. So the local community and visitors have a couple of years to enjoy the stick sculpture “in the moment.”