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Stickwork: Patrick Dougherty

126 Essex Street, Salem, Massachusetts
Through December 31, 2016

At first glance, the Peabody Essex Museum’s first environmental art installation may seem easy to dismiss as an homage to Dr. Seuss — cartoon, folly, or caricature. However, residents of Salem have lived with this piece through the seasons and in varied settings: walks with children, touring out-of-town visitors, passing it on a run or bike ride, watching from the neighboring pub. We have witnessed the discovery of this unexpected delight, accented by smiles, gesticulations, and exploration.

Constructed from saplings gathered from neighboring North Shore communities, Patrick Dougherty’s What the Birds Know has transformed the lawn in front of the historic Crowninshield-Bentley House (1727), a museum property. Dougherty drew from everything around him, “riding the wave” of a historic house, tree, lawn, corner sidewalk, fence, bushes. He embraced interactions with the community during construction: comments from passersby, volunteers collecting sticks, strangers assisting with assembly. In the process, the work became enmeshed in the materiality, character, and spirit of its place.

Dougherty says he “seeks a line logic” as he bends saplings and creates these structures: “Somewhere down deep in [birds’] minds is a set of circumstances that allows them to build beautiful objects. Objects that are amazing to humans because they are so complex.” Over the past year, I have seen these volumes, dusted with snow and glistening with rain, and sought shade within. My daughters have run through, peeked out from, and played tag amongst them. With the passage of time, they seem to tip more and more, threatening to go right over. Branches have darkened or silvered. New line logics have emerged and woven this piece into our community. Come see for yourself.

What the Birds Know, Patrick Dougherty, 2015.
Photo: Courtesy of Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, Massachusetts