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Thursday, May 17, 2012

Patrick Dougherty’s Snake Hollow: A Report from the Front Lines


By Taylor Crush

Entire contents are copyright © 2012 Taylor Crush. All rights reserved.

The finished installation, Snake Hollow. Photo by Taylor Crush.
Perseverance, hard work, over 50 volunteers, many willow saplings, and, primarily, Patrick Dougherty’s artistic vision and instruction are the aspects that make Snake Hollow a worthwhile visit. Dougherty’s recent installation project from his Stickwork series is now available for viewing and exploration at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest. Dougherty’s sculpture installations are temporal works made from natural materials such as willow saplings that are native to the area. Depending on the weather and type of sculpture, each installation can last up to two years. His designs involve weaving and binding sapling branches together to form flowing patterns and maze-like structures that visitors can walk through. Snake Hollow shares these qualities, which transforms the audience into a whimsical state of mind as they walk through the nature-based installation that, due to the leaning walls, tall ceilings, and twisted doorways, has the feeling of a Dr. Seuss illustration. It is welcoming to all ages that appreciate nature, interactive installations and playground-like settings.

Entering the installation. Photo by Taylor Crush.
I had the privilege of working with Dougherty several times throughout the creation of this installation as one of the volunteers. Learning the techniques of binding and weaving sapling branches together to form walls and ceilings was quite an experience. Dougherty took the time to meet and teach each volunteer the technique of working with saplings, adding value to the installation experience. Each stage of the project – starting with the layout design of the installation to the very last bunch of leaves stuffed in the walls of the structure – provided each volunteer with a new skill. I was able to participate three different times throughout the duration of the project. From those visits, I saw how the previous volunteers dug and replanted willow trunks into the ground to become tall posts for the wall supports. I learned how to weave branches around the base posts for the walls on several sides of the structure. The others who helped with this worked along the ground, while Dougherty stood on scaffolding to weave the taller parts of the walls. And finally, I helped with the final stuffing of the willow leaves into the walls. This part was important because it not only contributed to the thickness of the wall, but also formed the flowing patterns along the structure, which seem to guide you through the tunnels. One of my favorite memories of the project was during the “stuffing” stage in the last week of work. The willow leaves were releasing their seeds (which resemble flowing snowflakes) as we worked in the tunnels creating a magical environment, even though it made us sneeze.

Patrick Dougherty with Taylor Crush.
Photo by Mark K. Wourms,
Executive Director of Bernheim.
What was fascinating about this project were the vast ages and backgrounds of the volunteers who worked together to help make this installation happen. Over the course of about one month, the installation of Snake Hollow not only made an exquisite sculpture, but also formed a community of people who shared a deep appreciation of the arts, whatever their previous experiences. The location of this work next to the Visitor Center was ideal for non-volunteer visitors to observe and speak with Dougherty as he created the installation. In my own interaction with Dougherty, I discovered that he preferred to work in a public setting rather than in a studio because he valued the importance of audience interaction while he created his work. Public participation is a vital part of Dougherty’s installations from the time the first branch is woven until the installation’s inevitable destruction. The patience, perseverance, and positive instruction from Dougherty are the qualities I hope show through for every visitor who wishes to explore the project.  

Located next to the Visitor Center, this installation has easy access for all visitors who are interested in walking around and through the flowing maze of Snake Hollow. Bernheim is open from 7 am until sunset. On weekdays there is no fee. On weekends, however, non-members are asked to pay $5.00 per car. 

For more information about Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, please visit: http://www.bernheim.org/; and for more information about Patrick Dougherty’s installations, please visit http://www.stickwork.net/ or http://www.bernheim.org/dougherty.html.

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