by Anne Bruno
Photographs by Leonid Furmansky
On January 10, 2018 I arrive at Pease Park at 7:45 A.M., relieved that it’s not as cold as it had been the previous week. This is a place I know well, and after decades of walking its paths, I’ve come to feel about the park as one does an old friend; time and life change you both, but the desire to remain connected doesn’t fade. All the usuals, though fewer than I typically see on my afternoon visits, are here: walkers, runners, bike riders, and dogs.
While the park is peaceful this early in the morning, it’s not exactly quiet, and I see why as I get closer to the area called Custer’s Meadow, just south of 24th Street. A small group of people wearing green bandannas mills around an unfamiliar site in this normally wide-open part of the park. Enormous piles of Ligustrum lie on the ground near a portable chain-link fence whose sections have been arranged into a rough oval about 50 by 100 feet across. Against the fence lean bundles of a particularly aggressive kind of shrub whose multiple nicknames all sound gloomy — depression weed, poverty weed, and false willow. Both the Ligustrum and the weedy shrub are unwelcome residents of Central Texas. Surely no one at South Austin Park or the ranch in Stonewall where they were cut down and carted away by the truck-load the day before was sorry to see them go.
Standing in the middle of the group is a tall, white-haired man with glasses and a baseball cap. If I didn’t know better, by the way he gestures as he talks, I’d assume he was a coach of some kind and the eight people listening were members of a team who’d honed their skills working together, over time, under his leadership. But from his book, “Stickwork,” and “Bending Sticks,” the documentary film about him, I recognize the man as sculptor Patrick Dougherty. From this point in January he’s to be at Pease Park for the following three weeks to create an as-yet-untitled work of art with the help of hundreds of local volunteers, myself included.
An Oklahoma native raised in North Carolina, Dougherty is world-renowned for his more than 275 large-scale sculptures dotting the globe, each made entirely of saplings, sticks, and twigs. The group surrounding him comprises a random mix of Austinites, all of whom Dougherty has just met and most of whom have never met one another.
Dougherty’s work, as mesmerizing for its intricate detail as it is majestic in scope and breadth of imagination, is completely organic and locally site-specific in more ways than one: His materials come from whatever species (often undesirable) grow in the area where he’s commissioned to work; the under-taking is dependent on local volunteer help; the design, a result of the artist’s reaction to the local surroundings, evolves throughout the project; and the finished product follows what Dougherty describes as a natural cycle of life. This work of art is meant to be outside, in the conditions from which its materials originated, and later — after, as he puts it, “a few good years, depending on the weather” — it will return to the earth.
But there’s another kind of life inherent in Dougherty’s stick work and that’s the sense of community conjured in the making of the art. When I ask him about it, he answers in his typically understated manner. “Yes, it’s a really nice by-product. It’s for the community and by the community,” he says. “I like that,” he smiles.
It’s the non-permanent and welcoming aspect of Dougherty’s work that appeals to Bob, one of the first volunteers I work alongside after receiving our instructions from Dougherty. For several years, Bob and his wife have been involved with the Pease Park Conservancy (PPC). The nonprofit, which raised the funds to bring Dougherty and his art to Austin, was launched in 2008 by a group of neighbors then known as Trees for Pease. It’s grown to a staff of three, plus volunteers from across Austin, who help maintain and improve the park for the benefit of today’s residents, as well as future generations.
My conversation with Bob, which moves quickly from surface pleasantries to deeper topics like the parallels between Dougherty’s work and spiritual concepts such as impermanence, takes place as our hands are in constant motion. We’re stripping the leaves from the Ligustrum and readying the stalks to move from one pile outside the fence to a staging area inside it. Someone a pile over notes how the bare stalks look as though they’ve been processed in some way, and we all laugh, realizing that we are, in fact, the processors.
Five to eight volunteers work four-hour shifts, one group in the morning and another in the afternoon. Dougherty, whose son Sam often works with him, gives each group guidance and plenty of friendly encouragement along the way, all while answering questions and explaining the various stages of the project. A few hardy folks spend the entire day at the park, and some even arrive with their own work gloves.
After my first day, I returned and over the course of my shifts, I meet a few people who were born in Austin; more who moved here 25 or 30 years ago from places like Michigan, Wisconsin, Washington, D.C., or elsewhere in Texas; a woman who’s been here exactly one year; and a man who says his family is loving their sixth Austin winter (he hails from Chicago). The age range runs the gamut from a UT senior named Austin, whose ability to do some heavy lifting without losing his enthusiasm proves extremely valuable, to Ernst and SueJo, a couple who moved from Houston to Pflugerville after retirement. I also meet David, sometimes known as “Ace,” a self-described “former happy hippie potter” and an early employee of Clarksville Pottery who retired after a long career with the Austin Fire Department.
About 10 minutes into working on an especially leafy tree, something happens. Ace and I realize we have mutual friends in his next-door neighbors. A similar discovery happens with Rebecca, who used to work in Victoria. Such connections among total strangers are teased out of conversation several times each day: “I used to work there,” “Our kids must have gone to the same school one year apart,” or “I love that band. I’m sure I’ve seen you play!” Comments pop up among the group about how often Austin still feels like a small town.
The reasons for volunteering vary. Topher is an artist working in virtual reality and 3D, and Donya and her friend, Cricket, who drove in from San Marcos, are basket weavers. All three find Dougherty’s art inspiring and relevant to their own work. Donya calls the chance to work alongside an artist like Dougherty “absolutely irresistible.” Faith, a hospice physician originally from Canada, lives on several acres west of Austin. She explains that working outdoors is a nice balance to the many hours she spends dealing with death. Wearing her own gloves and broken-in work pants, she looks a little more comfortable with the task at hand than some of us, so I ask if she’s ever done anything like this before. “Oh no, not exactly,” she answers, although further conversation reveals that she’s created some “homemade art” out of sticks found on her property, along with cedar trunks that were there when she moved in. I’ve known Faith for a total of six hours, yet I’d be willing to bet that anything this woman makes with her hands is quite lovely.
For Bruce, who says he’s a “process guy,” the opportunity to see something like this actually come together is amazing and well worth a few vacation days away from his work as a magazine designer. Another volunteer, Walt, jokingly says he signed up “for the bragging rights,” adding, “Really, this is a pretty big deal, and I want to say I was part of it.”
Others, like Blair, have been following Dougherty’s career for years. She guesses she was one of the first, of more than 300, volunteers to sign up. Blair, along with Jenn and Meredith, both of whom live near the park, pull one long tree after another out of the pile, all the while covering topics such as raising kids and the best strategies for dealing with Austin allergies.
After three days in the park, I begin to recognize some of its visitors — human and canine — who come on a daily basis. Several stop to chat and ask us what we’re doing. An Australian shepherd named Cubby runs here every day. His owner, on a bike, explains matter-of-factly, “We’re here for the squirrels.”
From the beginning, this nontraditional, everyone-contributes art project, happening in a spot known as a true urban people’s park, feels perfectly at home in Austin. The bulk of the money raised for the project came from individuals in donations from ten to tens of thousands of dollars, along with several grants from the city and a few foundations. One, called Harlon’s Fund, exclusively supports efforts that inspire healing through the power of nature. Another donation, in terms of serious manpower and heavy equipment during the harvesting phase, came in the form of an expanded long-term partnership between PPC and Keith Brown, the owner of Austin Tree Experts.
By the end of my last shift, mountains of Ligustrums have been stripped, the ground we’ve been standing on is a glossy carpet of green leaves, we’ve filled 83 holes inside the fenced area with the stabilizing trunks that will support the base of the work, and we’ve erected two-story scaffolding so Patrick and Sam, along with the next shift of volunteers, can work on the tops.
Austin’s Pease Park joins locations across the globe — including spaces in Hawaii, Japan, and South Korea, to name a few — in hosting Dougherty’s majestic creations. The intentionally impermanent structures are meant to be experienced for several years. As they weather the elements, the creations decompose naturally, and become mulch for the parks. Photographs by Paul Kodama, Jared Kudbeck and courtesy of NTBG.
We leave our gloves in the pile on the picnic table but hang onto our green PPC bandannas, the white squirrel logo in the center of mine not quite as clean as when I started. Nice-to-meet-you and see-you-around-town hand-shakes and hugs are exchanged. We thank Dougherty and let him know he’s welcome in our park anytime.
By the time you read this, the Pease Park Stickwork Project will be complete and available to see in person. To learn more about the public opening scheduled for February 10, visit peasepark.org.
Read more from the Community Issue | February 2018