'They All Have a Common Goal of Making Beauty'

To the ragtag groups of volunteers that help him create his artwork, the sculptor Patrick Dougherty is a boss, a mentor, and a humble peer.

Patrick Dougherty and his son work on a sculpture
Patrick Dougherty, right, and his son work together on his sculpture "The Wild Rumpus." (Steven Senne / AP)

Some of the artist Patrick Dougherty’s sculptures resemble lairs or cocoons, and appear in places where such intricate animal dwellings are unexpected—college campuses, city centers, museums. He is known best for his large-scale pieces made entirely from tree saplings, which has earned him the nickname “The Stickman.”

Two years ago, the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., commissioned Dougherty to create an installation for its popular “Wonder” exhibit, but success came slowly to him. Dougherty, a 72-year-old North Carolina native, went to art school in his 30s, after stints serving in the Air Force and working in health administration, and then began to recruit volunteers to assist him in what he calls his “outdoor studio.” He maintains a small staff that includes his son, and takes pride in the mix of people who contribute to the creation of his works.

For The Atlantic’s series on mentorship, “On the Shoulders of Giants,” I spoke with Dougherty about how he guides and inspires his volunteers and staff. The following interview has been edited and condensed.

Elisha Brown: Why do you think folks are so eager to help build your sculptures?

Patrick Dougherty: I’m not clear why they feel so compelled to come to work with me, but I always think of a good sculpture as one that causes personal associations. Simple shelter, stick building, and playing with sticks or using them in a way that’s uncharacteristic causes a great deal of interest in the public. I find that there’s a lot of closet stick-gatherers out there. I try to maximize the impact of the sculptures on the space, and think about the viewers and what the sculpture can do to transport them to other feelings. In trying to do that with my whole soul, I suppose I inspire other people to be there and participate.

Brown: You’ve said it takes about three weeks to build your sculptures. How do you organize your crew?

Dougherty: Everyone comes to work at 8 o’clock. There are about five people in the morning and five people in the afternoon. We just throw ourselves into it. Sometimes people are so eager that they can’t even talk. By the third week, everybody’s really a solidified crew. We might have a grandmother, a hippie, and a college professor. They all have a common goal of making beauty and trying to make something compelling.

Brown: How do you encourage them to stay energized during the creation of the piece?

Dougherty: I try to be considerate and think about how they’re feeling. When a group of people makes something together, they build a great deal of energy. I keep everything moving along. I don’t ask them to do things I wouldn’t do.

Brown: Who have you learned from?

Dougherty: An elderly lady who now has passed away, Audrey Tuverson. She knew how to do everything in the Army arts-and-craft shop, which I would visit when I served in the Air Force. When you go to school, you latch onto some professor or another. Mike Cindric was a professor of clay and sculpture at the University of North Carolina.

Brown: What was your mentorship with Mike like?

Dougherty: When someone [like that] gives you permission to proceed [with your art], you take it much more to heart than you would if a person on the street says something to you.

Brown: Your son, Sam Dougherty, is one of your assistants. Does he look to you as a mentor?

Dougherty: Oh yeah. He’s a traditional potter. He’s looking for an approach to making a living with art and an approach to how to come up with an idea.

Brown: What’s it like mentoring up-and-coming artists?

Dougherty: It’s like mentoring wild horses. You can’t give young people true advice. You just plow ahead and let them watch you do it. You can be encouraging about their efforts. I don’t like to walk around and look at someone’s work and say, “I would do something else,” or, “That’s never going to work.” I have this belief in an imminent possibility. When someone has an effort, it depends on how much they want to carry it and how much energy they have.

Brown: What would you say to sculptors aspire to create large-scale works?

Dougherty: It’s a long-term event. It usually takes 20 years before you get what you think you deserve the first year. Artists should do what they’re compelled to do, and let art history take care of itself. If you start worrying about whether something is historically significant, or if it’s good, even before you start a project, you’re going to be stymied and not be able to go forward. If you work hard at it, it’ll happen for you.

Brown: Your sculptures don’t last forever. Was there a point when their temporary nature bothered you?

Dougherty: I’ve been able to think about temporary work as a way of working. It fits the material, and there was a jaundiced eye at looking at the massive amount of artwork that’s been made. Why should I think that my artwork was going to survive a century, or be interesting, even after I’ve passed away? I really like that essentialness of having something that has to be looked at now. But there’s a whole lot more about the process that has become compelling. I feel very great moving on to the next work and making something else as a unit. As a lifetime of work, it’s been a valid effort.