Since the early 1980s, artist Patrick Dougherty has delved into the relationships between structure and the natural world through his “Stickwork” installations. Each of his works, labyrinths of curved branches coalesced into cubes or castles, is unique to the space where it was built.
His 300th work is nearly ready for public enjoyment at the Denver Botanic Gardens’ Chatfield Farms, a curling network of hallways and tunnels meant to evoke the coils of a rattlesnake. Like many of his other projects, this installation embodies a lot of local influence: bendy willow branches collected from the region.
Grace Rodriguez, an assistant manager with the Gardens, helped coordinate the institution’s support on this project. It’s been in the works for over a year, and she traveled to a dozen or so sites in search of materials for Dougherty to use this spring.
The Gardens’ stable of researchers and horticulturalists played a key role in connecting her to nearby land managers with willow to spare. These folks exist in a “really tight network” throughout the state, and their relationships made way for the installation.
And before you ask: this is a fairly sustainable exercise. Dougherty said willow is a great material because harvesting it is much like trimming hedges. You clip sticks off of a stump and they grow back even faster.
Rodriguez has a background in biology, and she’s particularly interested in how this project entwines art and the natural world in a way that makes both more accessible.
“People think that science has a particular language, that art has a particular language that they can’t access. When you blend the two, that’s how you really hook people and engage them, and that’s what the Gardens is all about,” she said. “That’s what this project means to me.”
For Dougherty, these projects represent less science than architecture, though he similarly hopes visitors will find a new path to access nature and beauty.
“The nice thing about working with a botanic garden is people use it as respite,” he said. “You can kind of ponder the natural world.”
Urban and suburban residents who don’t spend as much time amid the trees, he said, could use a little more time in a natural setting.
So far, the project has offered a unique opportunity for some local volunteers to spend a lot of personal time with organic materials. Dougherty first mapped an outline and set some foundational logs, and then was followed by a team of helpers armed with willow to fill in the walls.
“It’s been a really awesome process because we get to work with the community and all these volunteers,” Rodriguez said. “It really takes a village.”
The piece should last as long as three years.
You can catch Dougherty talking about this installation at Chatfield Farms on Thursday, April 25. It officially opens to the public Saturday, April 27.