ART REVIEW: Stickwork is a Fantastical Fortress

stickwork hermitage museum norfolk

By Betsy DiJulio

Little boys build forts in the woods.  When they grow up, one of them at least builds fortresses.

Although fortress isn’t quite the right term for what Patrick Doughtery builds.  Birds nest, indigenous tribe dwelling, boma, nor “folly”—those nonsensical structures erected on the estates of wealthy English and Scotsman—are exactly it either.  No, Doughtery’s forms are unique hybrids: personal spaces on public grounds.

With the help of legions of community volunteers, Doughtery’s organic architectural forms, built entirely of saplings, have been erected across the United States and abroad for the likes of museums, botanical gardens, and universities.   And, until natural forces prevail, Villa Tempesta—so named because of coinciding, or perhaps colliding, with Hurricane Matthew—will remain in the grotto of The Hermitage Museum where it is free to those who want to stroll through during normal business hours.  Inside the museum, an exhibition of photos and drawings of other projects plus an installation video will remain on view through January 15, 2017.

Just north of 70 years old, Doughtery has been in demand for three decades.  He makes his home in North Carolina from which he travels some ten times each year for approximately three weeks at a time to complete his commissioned pieces.  No two of these site specific natural installations are ever the same, taking the form of mazes, relief sculpture or, most often, fanciful architecture.  About Villa Tempesta, Doughtery commented for Veer, “This sculpture is especially sensitive to its site…From the outside, it looks a bit gothic, mirroring the gothic flavor of the wall behind and the museum building too.  Only when one enters into the interior courtyard can the viewer take its full measure.”  It is also from inside the villa that we can experience The Hermitage grounds and adjacent river framed in fresh ways.

I was fortunate to visit on a Sunday with board member and dear friend, Trish Pfeifer (plus husband, Ken, and dog, Stella), and Bob Friesen.  It was Bob who, because he was so taken with the woodwork inside the historic house museum—the Sloane’s Gothic-inspired summer cottage—helped me see and appreciate the deeply rooted—if you’ll pardon the pun—connection between the formal carpentry-based approach to woodworking indoors and Doughtery’s.  The latter is much more intuitive, yet every bit as disciplined and craft-centric.  It was also Bob who also made the connection to bomas, African livestock enclosures and small forts he remembered from the Tarzan books.

Still, Doughtery’s ambiguous structures are singular visions driven by his predilection for a swirling line, full of movement and grace, yet remarkably solid and immutable.  Each one begins by the master—though he would never refer to himself as such—placing the largest saplings deeply into the ground.  Then trained volunteers—numbering around 50 at The Hermitage—begin building over, through, and around this armature, guided by the artist, but given ample freedom.  Doughtery shared with me that, “Volunteers were great and made a good team.  Their willingness to throw themselves totally into the work led to a great piece.”

Pfeifer would attribute the volunteers’ enthusiasm for the project to the artist, saying, “The volunteers who helped harvest, strip, cut, and weave the saplings felt like much more than laborers.  Patrick was so generous sharing his knowledge, coaching each of us, and giving us the freedom to make some of the decisions as we worked.  He is a consummate teacher who made us all feel so much a part of this piece.  It was a ‘community’ effort in the best sense of the word.”

The undulating grace of the circular “villa”—vaguely reminiscent of Hadrian’s Villa—with its windows, chambers, pathways, turrets and towers—belies the physical labor required to transform four truckloads of local saplings (which were being removed anyway as part of a real estate development) into a magical vision.  I want to visit and visit often over the next couple of years as the Mother Nature further transforms the structure.

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