By Jen Russo
Kids love sticks. But that’s not quite what the Hui No’eau in Makawao had in mind when they invited renowned artist Patrick Dougherty to Maui to spin his magic stick sculptures on their 10 acres of open space, as part of their Artist in Residence program. No, they actually had a more philanthropic/benevolent goal: “to provide opportunities for local Maui artists to learn through dynamic and engaging interactions that have a long term impact in the community.”
As I marched up the Hui driveway with 20 or so four- and five-year-olds, all twitterpated with anticipation as to what this day out of their normally scheduled class was going to hold, I watched their faces light up as we found our destination. Think of it as something made entirely of sticks, straight from Middle Earth.
“The saplings that I gather range from finger to wrist size, and I gather them for both their color and flexibility,” he said. “Willow is a favorite sapling, but I often use Maple, Sweet Gum, Elm or Dogwood, depending on what is plentiful where I’m working. In some locations, I need to use more exotic saplings like Sassafras, Crabapple or fruitwoods because that’s what is available. In Japan, I experimented with reeds and bamboo.”
Hawaii posed a few challenges for Dougherty, but he found a solution that also turned out to be beneficial for our environment. Strawberry Guava has proved a usable material in Hawaii because it’s both flexible and plentiful,” he said. “Moreover, since it’s an invasive species, our harvesting helped the eradication program already in place.”
Dougherty took his lifelong preoccupation with building things with his own hands and his degree in art and built and international reputation as the artful architect of sticks. So far, he’s constructed more than 200 organic nest-like sculptures across the globe that, over time, fade back into the landscape.
The process is immense. Dougherty must first dig down two feet to create stability, since the sculptures are intended for human roaming. Even with teams of volunteers assisting, it usually takes him about three weeks to shape the wood into a completed piece.
Kelly McHugh, the director of the Artist in Residence program at the Hui, says the program is designed purposely to get people together, building on their core group of artists and students while hosting. The projects involved also blossom new interest in volunteering and getting hands-on with the artist and the piece.
“We want to build more arts advocates,” she said. “We want to build more bridges and make art relevant to new audiences while strengthening that relevance to existing audiences. Not just seeing it, but experiencing it–and that doesn’t have to mean making it: it can just mean forming a deeper connection than an initial reaction or first impression. As Maui’s only community-based visual arts education organization, we feel it’s imperative to advance this work within and throughout our community.”
Dougherty came to Maui for an initial walk through the grounds, which is when he determined where his sculpture would stand. Then he started on the sticks. In Hawaii, where much of our woodlands have been introduced, and this flora tends to choke out the endemic species, Dougherty had the opportunity to assist the natural environment by choosing to use an invasive species.
“We were absolutely thrilled to be asked to participate in this project,” said Lissa Fox Strohecker, the education and outreach specialist of the Maui Invasive Species Committee (MISC). “It’s different from our normal work and provided us with an excellent opportunity to help get the word out about the impacts of invasive species, but gathering the volume of material was a rather daunting task. It was possible, thanks to the many volunteers.”
After discussions on a suitable material began in December 2010, Strohecker says MISC and Dougherty settled on Strawberry Guava.
“It’s definitely in abundance, and as one of the most damaging invasive species in Hawaii, it was a great way to help raise awareness about the impact,” she said. “The amount of material collected was impressive! I remember seeing the piles of ‘sticks’ when we were done collecting the first day and thinking that there was going to be way too much material. Little did I know!”
The resulting sculpture, aptly named “On the Wild Side,” is a massive series of wooden cotton candy puffs. It’s the ultimate Hobbit shack. Little doors and windows peek out here and there, letting in the light. You immediately see the structure to your right as you walk towards the main building on their property. The Hui welcomes picnickers, lookie loos and running children.
The sculpture beckons you to enter. In fact, I was tempted to string up a hammock and nap in there, the ultimate tree house. Each of Dougherty’s sculpture is unique, and the shapes that the pieces take on are inspired by their location.
“I have built many different objects from saplings, but ‘On The Wild Side’ is a sculpture that features the ‘gentle curve’–bananas, fish, seed pods, leaves, the shape of the monkey pod tree nearby,” Dougherty said. “Maui seems to be a world of gentle curves. I started by laying out a footprint of five large curved shapes. These shapes were placed in such a way that the viewer could meander from one to another once the upper part of the shape was figured out. In other words, I set some parameters for the work and then as the work took shape, I ad-libbed and developed the upper part as I went. The big challenge was to make something that fit the green space it occupies and somehow to nestle it under the big Norfolk pine that is nearby. I wanted something that felt right in the space and had an appropriate scale.”
To perpetuate the partnership between this project and the public, the Hui began offering a field trip for students to come experience the sculpture. Art begins with appreciation, and the gracious staff was eager to see their young visitors on the morning we arrived to “Explore and Discover.”
The kids, still boggled by the new surroundings of their day, quietly surrounded McHugh and Hui staffer Julie Matheis. We stood under the norfolk and next to “On the Wild Side” with a gentle drizzle hugging us together. The students perked up when they heard that we were moving into the litho studio for the StickFolk Workshop.
Inside, Matheis took us through the gamut of found objects that we could use to create art: everything from natural things like twigs and seeds to googly eyes and sparkly neon pipe cleaners. Students were eager to get working on their pet projects. The idea was that later, they would introduce their new object to the outdoors and Dougherty’s “On the Wild Side.”
Part way through the workshop, all the drilling through seeds and nuts and glueing sticks together and tapping glitter came to a halt to give Strohecker the floor. She was there to talk about endemic versus invasive species, and what we can all do to be stewards of this close knit ecological tightrope in the middle of the Pacific.
I asked Mr. Jeffrey Friedman, one of the teachers in the Montessori class that has accompanied me on this excursion, how much of this information four- or five-year-old could retain.
“My experience with this issue at such a young age is that children can indeed grasp the difference between native and invasive when presented succinctly with age-appropriate language and context,” he said. “I knew our children were on the younger side of what the Hui/MISC’s program was designed to target. Nevertheless, our MISC presentation was largely well done. They gained an awareness, an impression, of one aspect that defines their environment.”
Hunger motivated us to the next step, where we dined on sack lunches in the Hui’s gorgeous solarium as it rained outside. Then, after lunch, it dried just enough to enjoy an outdoor stroll through the stick maze Dougherty created. But strolling soon turned to glorious kid chaos with an after-lunch spike in energy. With newly made creatures in hand, the kids twirled, ran, hid in corners and launched themselves about the stick sculpture trying to explore every aspect.
“The sculpture is on the wild side of the island and also fits the sense of vibrancy that characterizes the natural world on Maui–the freedom that is embodied by both wind and wave,” said Dougherty. “I liked the final sculpture very much and it seemed very successful and popular with the viewers. It’s easy to lose your children in just a few feet; there are lots of nooks and crannies and doorways to slip through. The sculpture is accessible and can be easily stepped into by even the most casual visitor to the Hui.”
But after that first visit with the kids, it became clear to me that Dougherty had created something more than just a mass jumble of sticks.
The construction phase included many local people volunteering their time,” he said. “It seems that in the process of building a sculpture it is also possible to build community.”