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.