Globally Renowned Artist Guides Installation

04 Aug 2021

Volunteers weave life into stick art

By RAY LINVILLE  »  Photos by Brandon Williams

Although it takes a village to raise a child, only a small dedicated team of willing volunteers is needed to bring a stick-art sculpture to life. However, they have to be guided by master artist Patrick Dougherty and choreographed by landscaping gardening professor Jim Westmen, the director of Sandhills Horticultural Gardens.

At the gardens, an amazing scene unfolded as willow sticks began to take shape into a temporary, oversized, outdoor sculpture now simply known as “What Goes Around Comes Around.”

Much like worker bees serving under the direction of the queen bee, local volunteers collaborated on tasks they had never done before as they showed talents that they didn’t know that they had. But would their work be acceptable and blend with what other volunteers were doing?

Just ask the artist himself.

“That’s kind of perfect,” Dougherty said as he walked by and looked at the progress being made Frances Kruitbosch of Whispering Pines who is on Sandhills Horticultural Society’s board. What a compliment!

Obviously relieved, she confessed, “Today is my first day.”

Asked to explain what she was doing, Kruitbosch added, “I’m wrapping these sticks through bigger willows and adding to the pattern. It’s kind of a fluid motion, going down and through them.”

Meanwhile, Westmen was checking on the progress of other volunteers. He was usually interrupted only by occasional questions from observers visiting the gardens.

He said, “The most common question has been, ‘What are y’all doing?’”

To the unaware, watching the sculpture rise from the ground one stick at a time must have been puzzling. However, the volunteers had a sense of purpose even before they began.

For example, Alisa Sorenson who lives in the Manly community near Southern Pines was on her second shift. She said that she had been familiar with Dougherty’s work for about 20 years. “I jumped at the opportunity to sign up and work with him. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” she added.

The benefit for her of being involved with the expanding sculpture: “I’ve learned a lot about how to see things,” she said.

Westmen said that the volunteers probably numbered more than 40. They included current and former students, current gardens volunteers, retired faculty, community members at large, and even a former golf professional on the women’s tour.

What did they share in common? “They all just wanted to get out and sweat with us on these hot days,” he joked.

Art professor emerita Denise Baker, who started on the first week and completed about 10 shifts, was amazed by the camaraderie among the volunteers. But even more amazing was the approach that Dougherty, whom she had worked with earlier on a similar project in Asheville, demonstrated as the installation was taking shape.

About Dougherty, she said, “He’s a great teacher. He’s so generous to invite us into his process. A lot of artists don’t let you do that. He has such a gentle touch and a positive tone. He’s so gracious and is always giving compliments.”

About Westmen, who actually had been one of Baker’s students, she said, “I just love watching him, taking a branch and making it work.”

Working near Baker was Lenore Rittenhouse of Whispering Pines, a college basketball point guard before she became a touring golf pro. Perhaps her hand-eye coordination was useful when the willow branches first arrived because they were all enveloped by leaves unwanted for the project. All the leaves had to be removed.

“A lot of us were strippers,” she admitted. “You haven’t lived until you’ve worked as a stripper.”

Baker retorted, “I was a stripper, too. For the first couple of days, I did a lot of stripping.”

Rittenhouse responded, “Even before stripping, I was a hauler.” She was referring to the truckloads of willow branches brought onto the campus for the project.

How were her talents now being used? As she inserted willow branches into the structure, Rittenhouse said, “I’m making the walls firm so Patrick can build the outer wall. This will make it stronger.”

Also weaving branches into the design was Allen Ashdown, a polysomnographer who lives in Carthage and is also a woodworker. One of Baker’s former work-study students, he had a grandiose description of his task: “It’s like Basket Weaving 101 in a giant form.

“I’ve never done this before. Patrick came around and showed us what to do a couple of times,” he proclaimed, and he’d been busy ever since.

As the weavers were entranced in their work, Dougherty ascended a scaffolding again to work at the top of the structure with his son Sam, himself an expert stick-worker.

With more than 300 projects installed around the globe, Dougherty is quite sought-after as groups try to enlist him to come and build in their areas. He’s already booked through the end of 2022 and schedules only 10 installations a year. Getting him to come to Sandhills Horticultural Gardens was quite an undertaking.

Dr. John Dempsey, college president, said, “It’s all because of Alan Butler, board chair of the gardens. He developed the idea, championed it, carried the weight, and raised all the money to make it possible.

“It’s so important because it’s a live project assembled here beautifully by the people of our community. The gardens belong to all the people of the community.”

Embracing Dempsey’s thoughts are words that Baker has said more than once, “Life with art is the best life.”

Butler acknowledges how the sculpture will enhance the gardens as he also points to the late Jane McPhaul, to whom it is dedicated. Although she passed away earlier this year, her spirit lives in perpetuity in the gardens. Instrumental in not only establishing SCC as the first community college in the state, she also helped to found Sandhills Horticultural Society.

With all the work that occurred and all the volunteers needed, perhaps a village was indeed required for this project.

Sandhills Horticultural Society

The society is a public membership, non-profit, volunteer-based organization that provides funds for the gardens. It conducts special garden-related events, and it also supplies docents and garden specialists. It encourages individual, family, and lifetime memberships. For more information, call 910-695-3882.

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