Art project sticks out

BLUFFTON, S.C. - Karen Davies stood on scaffolding in the morning light as her leather-gloved hands twined gray twigs into one another.


"This is the work I love," said Ms. Davies, a professor at the Savannah College of Art and Design and a consultant for the Island School Council for the Arts.

Wind-blown smoke from a metal fireplace billowed over artist Patrick Dougherty and several volunteers helping him build a sculpture out of twigs at Palmetto Bluff. The smoke kept sand gnats from sticking with them.

"I didn't know this would be so fun," said Bluffton High School sophomore Matt Sandusky, who stands 6 feet 8 inches tall. He came with his art appreciation class to do some drawing but was asked to help with the sculpture because of his height.

"They said, 'Use force. Don't worry about breaking things,'" Matt said.

Mr. Dougherty - who has built his stick structures around the world, including a project at Augusta State University in January 2005 - said his style of sculpture was inspired by wandering in the woods in North Carolina, noticing the patterns over interwoven branches under his feet.

The work at Palmetto Bluff was inspired as well by the ruins of the Wilson Mansion. Mr. Dougherty said the sculpture resembles some kind of temple or castle forged of the motion of wind and sea.

As people have lost contact with nature they've turned more to parks and to art made of natural materials, he said.

"We are creatures. Creatures need to be outside, to look up at the trees, in the marsh, out to sea. It offers a moment of contemplation with the natural world. It calls on some kind of inner eye that needs that view to replenish it," he said.

Eventually the sticks held themselves together, woven around one another, and the scaffolding was removed. While Mr. Dougherty and helpers began building March 5, work for the project began more than two years ago.

The Island School Council for the Arts commissioned Mr. Dougherty to build one of his mighty environmental artworks out of locally pruned tree saplings, branches and twigs. Just getting on his schedule was a challenge, and securing the funding was a major project, too.

The Island School Council won a highly competitive Access to Artistic Excellence grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The Town of Bluffton signed on, helping foot the bill as part of its cultural tourism project through hospitality taxes. Palmetto Bluff has offered in-kind donations as well.

"This is a destination for people to come and see this amazing sculpture. Not all artists work outdoors. It's like a gallery without walls. For the town of Bluffton to have this kind of project in our community is very exciting. It's the first of its kind here," Ms. Davies said.

The sculpture will be up through November and is expected to draw art lovers and curious onlookers.

The Island School Council has also turned the entire project into art education by inviting schools and the community to participate and learn.

"We were tickled to death to be able to do this. We've seen Patrick's work before. We wanted to be able to see what it's like from the inside out during construction," said Faye Smit, a Beaufort artist who helped Mr. Dougherty.