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Artist's residency will bring surprises

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August 30, 2007

By MEGAN JAMES

MIDDLEBURY — No one knows exactly what Patrick Dougherty will build on the front lawn of Middlebury College’s Center for the Arts (CFA) next month. Perhaps not even the artist himself.

In residencies at other institutions over the past 20 years, Dougherty has created massive towers of intertwined sticks, cocoon-like structures wrapped around trees and nests spiraling out to cover entire faces of buildings. But since he never works from drawings or plans, the sculptor’s final product remains a mystery until it begins to take shape.

The Middlebury community can be sure of at least two things: the internationally known sculptor will work with silver maple saplings harvested in Weybridge, stripping them of their leaves and weaving them together, and he will enlist the help of community volunteers to get the job done.

For Dougherty, the creative process is as important as the completed sculpture. He aims to work locally, using indigenous materials and engaging the community in every part of the project. Not only will passersby on Route 30 be able to watch the sculpture evolve over the artist’s three-week residency, but they will be encouraged to lend a hand when they can.

“We do need a lot of volunteers,” said Emmie Donadio, chief curator at the Middlebury College Museum of Art, which along with the college’s “One Per Cent for Art” initiative is funding Dougherty’s residency.

Truckloads of maple saplings will arrive at the site on Sept. 10 and Dougherty is going to need plenty of help stripping the trees of their leaves. The first few days are going to be tough, Donadio said. “But the more people who are there to do it, the more fun it will be.”

Interested volunteers can visit http://community.middlebury.edu/~sticks to register and learn more about the project. They are required to fill out a waiver to assure they are physically fit for the job.

But many in the community have already been involved for months, preparing for Dougherty’s arrival. 

College forester Steve Weber was enlisted about a year ago to help secure material for the project. At that time, organizers hoped Dougherty could use trees grown on college land. But finding just the right species of tree was more difficult than they had anticipated, he said.

“It was tough to find the right size material, the right amount of saplings of the kind (Dougherty) wanted,” Weber said.

So they began looking in the surrounding area and settled on a 25-foot strip of silver maple saplings, a supple and pliable species, off Prunier Road along the Lemon Fair River in Weybridge. The college hired Greehaven Gardens in New Haven to harvest the trees and transport them to the CFA lawn.

In addition to community volunteers, two paid assistants, Middlebury resident Stephen Keith and Middlebury College graduate Andy Lynch, are preparing to work with Dougherty each day.

“I have no idea what to anticipate,” Keith said of the project. “I’ve seen his work before — an installation in Massachusetts — and it was very interesting to me.”

A traditional wood-canvas canoe builder, Keith has been bending northern white cedar and ash for the past 16 years, a process he expects may be similar to Dougherty’s.

Keith said he is looking forward to the interactions between college and community.

“Anything with the college that can involve the community is going to be great,” he said.

Dougherty doesn’t expect his sculptures to remain standing for more than a year or two, Donadio noted.

“There have been times in the history of art when works of art were meant to have eternal significance,” she said. Artists worked in materials they believed would last forever. But Dougherty’s sculptures are built with the intention of coming apart.

His Middlebury creation, when it is completed at the end of September, will have to stand up to the wind and snow of a Vermont winter. But as its structure gradually weakens, it will leave the site as organically as it arrived.

“When the work doesn’t stand up anymore, it’s mulched,” Donadio said.

An exhibition of photographic and video documentation drawn from a number of Dougherty’s prior commissions will also be on view at the Middlebury College Museum of Art from Sept. 11 through Dec. 9, and Dougherty will give a public talk on Wednesday, Sept. 19, at 4:30 p.m. in the Center for the Arts Concert Hall.

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