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New Sculpture At Davidson College Evokes Agrarian Past

Marshall Terry/WFAE
The sculpture called Common Ground at Davidson College still under construction.

A new sculpture will be unveiled at Davidson College on Friday. It’s not made of stone or metal -- but sticks.

The piece in the campus sculpture garden has three towers resembling tribal huts that appear to grow out of the ground naturally and then rise about 20 feet. It’s the work of sculptor Patrick Dougherty, who is renowned for his work with sticks.

Patrick Dougherty
Credit Marshall Terry / WFAE
Sculptor Patrick Dougherty instructing volunteers on the best way to weave the sticks.

“There are a lot of stick traditions out there,” Dougherty said. “There were the Middle Ages. You had indigenous tribes working. You have bird nests as models. Apes make nests. And you see that there’s childhood play. You know, sticks are an imaginative object. Adults maintain fond memories of those times.

"What a good sculpture does is cause a lot of personal associations and give you a lot of starting points for thinking about something and expanding your view as, ‘Oh, you mean you really could use sticks as sculpture and be successful.'”

Common Ground stick tower
Credit Marshall Terry / WFAE
One of the stick towers in the sculpture Common Ground.

Part of the personal association for Dougherty is his childhood playing with siblings in the woods.

“We had five children in my family and were always messing around and making forts and so forth,” Dougherty said. “That might have engendered some of this. I’ve gone way beyond that.”

Dougherty began making these fantastical, almost haunting sculptures 35 years ago.  His work has been displayed around the U.S. and also in Europe and Asia.

The Davidson piece, called Common Ground, contains thousands of elm and sweet gum sticks interwoven to create a thick latticework. The towers have openings that allow viewers to step inside.  

All of the sticks were gathered from the Davidson campus and a nearby property the school owns. It has taken about three weeks to assemble the sculpture. Dougherty relied on volunteers to help. 

Owen Keefer
Credit Marshall Terry / WFAE
Davidson senior Owen Keefer volunteered to help build the sculpture. Here he snips branches to make the sticks easier to work with.

Davidson senior Owen Keefer is one of them. He snips off branches to make the sticks easier to work with.

“I’m getting all of these big sticks and getting them around the corners,” Keefer says. “I’m really having to put all my weight into it. The smaller stuff isn’t too bad. But the big stuff can be labor intensive.”

Each volunteer session lasts four hours. Keefer, who is an art major, is eager to see the final piece.

“I’ll probably walk by, show all my friends like, ‘Hey, I did this corner,’” Keefer says. “Hopefully it’s one of the better corners.”

Dougherty says he doesn’t create his sculptures with a specific message in mind.

“But I think that the material does make people think about their relationship with the environment,” he says. “There’s also a sense of the loss of agrarian life in our modern life.  There’s a way of farm working that’s built into this or crafting traditions and so forth.  People kind of feel a little bit nostalgic about that."

The sculpture will be officially unveiled during a reception Friday at 4:30 p.m. It will be at Davidson for two years.

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Marshall came to WFAE after graduating from Appalachian State University, where he worked at the campus radio station and earned a degree in communication. Outside of radio, he loves listening to music and going to see bands - preferably in small, dingy clubs.