Something odd happened on the front lawn of The Taft Museum of Art. The world-renowned sculptor Patrick Dougherty, with the help of 150 volunteers, twisted and turned six tons of willow-tree saplings into Far Flung,a sprawling sculpture that visitors are encouraged to touch, walk through, or even sit a spell in.
In keeping with The Taft’s mission to mount temporary exhibitions that relate to the Museum’s collection or architecture, Dougherty has keyed off of The Taft’s façade, a fine example of Federal architecture in the Palladian style. This is nothing new for the 73-year-old North Carolina sculptor. In fact, it’s the way he always works. He makes drawings but they “are so nonspecific that if I did change it you wouldn’t be able to tell. My wife once asked me if that was a drawing or had I spilled my coffee on the paper.” 1
For Far Flung, Dougherty was also inspired by The Taft’s current exhibition of works by Louis Comfort Tiffany (See aeqai.com, March 2018, Karen S. Chambers, “Louis Comfort Tiffany: Treasures from the Driehaus Collection”). The pieces reminded him “of the central role of a twisting tendril in the Art Nouveau movement. This gave rise to the idea of a vine searching its way across the front lawn.” He continued, “This growth factor is exemplified by the rolled piping that festoons the top of the sculpture as it sweeps across the yard. The forward motion creates small eddies that act as impromptu bivouacs and invite visitors to explore.”
The idea for inviting Dougherty to make this site-specific and temporary installation came from Tim Maloney of The Carol Ann and Ralph V. Haile, Jr./U.S. Bank Foundation, which also funded the project.
Dougherty has been making these monumental but temporary site-specific sculptures for 36 years; more than 250 are scattered around the world in Asia, Europe, Australia, and throughout North America. Born in Oklahoma in 1945, he was reared in North Carolina. He received a B.A. in English from the University of North Carolina in 1967 and an M.A. in Hospital and Health Administration from the University of Iowa in 1969. Working in the Air Force’s health and hospital administration, he began to make sculptural constructions, and when he was 36 returned to the University of North Carolina to study art history and sculpture.
The basis of his very distinctive style comes from combining love of nature with his skills as a carpenter (he built his own home in North Carolina using materials he found on the site: fallen branches, rocks, and old timber). Dougherty also cites his interest in primitive building techniques, folk art, and craft from various cultures.
Experimenting with tree saplings as construction material, his first work, Maple Body Wrap, was included in the 1982 North Carolina Biennial Artists’ Exhibition.
Far Flung is divided into two parts, one on each side of the walkway to the disused front door of the Museum. A large arch, framing the entrance to the house, connects the halves. Because of the medium and Dougherty’s use of a basket-making technique, I saw it as a giant handle for a basket. He used this same device to connect sections of the rambling installation.
I was alone with/in the sculpture, but before I arrived in the mid-afternoon, the Taft had hosted 450 Cincinnati public schools students, ranging from the third to eighth grade. They were long gone, but I imagined them chasing each other around the perimeter, playing hide-and-seek in what Dougherty calls “eddies,” but which I saw as less romantically “rooms,” an interpretation bolstered by the large “windows” cut into the meandering walls that preview or frame the next room.
It was a brilliantly sunny day, a Cincinnati spring day edging toward the 80’s and summer when I saw, experienced, Far Flung. Sunlight peeking through spaces where the willow saplings were loosely woven, gave the impression of jewels embedded among the sticks.
I saw the installation as a refuge for fanciful creatures like wood nymphs, water sprites, elves, and trolls. Or perhaps it was part of an initiation or coming-of-age ritual. But it also offered respite for urban dwellers. Despite the construction going on around it, once I entered Far Flung, it faded away.
It was easy to wander through Far Flung. The plan is not a maze. The spaciousness of the design is reinforced by the fact there is no roof and is open to the sky, eliminating the possibility of using it as a proper shelter. However, there are sections cast into shadow, providing welcome relief from the sun so it is a shelter in some sense, a nice re-interpretation of cabana.
Although it might seem that I had the perfect viewing weather, I wanted to see Far Flung in other viewing conditions. Delicately lit by sunrise. The noonday sun straight overhead, creating a dramatic chiaroscuro effect of light and dark. At dusk when the light is soft and even.
I’d like to see it in torrential rain and in a light mist. I’d like to see it as snow sifts down and blankets it.
There will be time for that because Far Flung will remain on the Taft’s lawn for perhaps as long as two years. During that time, it will change as the saplings begin to succumb to the weather and time, break down, disintegrate, and return to the earth.
Far Flung is a piece for all seasons.
–Karen S. Chambers
“TWISTED/Patrick Dougherty Entwined at The Taft,” The Taft Museum of Art, 316 Pike St., Cincinnati, OH 45202, 513-684-4516, taftmuseum.org. Wed.-Fri. 11 am-4 pm, Sat.-Sun. 11 am-5 pm. The Taft is closed Mondays and Tuesdays, New Year’s Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving Day, and Christmas Day.
1 Molly B. Moon, “The Dougherty Diary: Midpoint,” fernwoodbotanical.org. Moon chronicles the making of Take Five, 2014, at Fernwood Botanical Garden, Niles, MI, giving insight into Dougherty’s working methods.