Visit an enchanted hamlet made of sticks at Pease Park

12:00 a.m. Thursday, Feb. 1, 2018 Lifestyle

Kids rush through the portals and hang from the windows. Adults step gingerly on the packed mulch and move back to view the five tall curved, leaning structures that look like something from “Where the Wild Things Are” or “The Hobbit.”

“We let the kids in early,” says “Stickwork” artist Patrick Dougherty about his hamlet of sapling huts in Pease Park. “They weren’t sure that they were allowed to come in the gate.”

The scaffolding and fencing came down last week. Almost immediately, pictures of frolicsome visitors flooded social media, especially on fine days over the weekend. The official public unveiling of “Yippee Ki Yay,” however, won’t be until 1 p.m. Feb. 10, courtesy of the Pease Park Conservancy, the green space advocate that put together this project.

“We wanted to make a cathedral,” Dougherty jokes during a preview tour. “We got five corners instead.”

Ralph Barrera/Austin American-Statesman
The Stickworks sculpture by artist Patrick Dougherty is complete in Pease Park with a public opening slated for February 10, 2018. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

The $106,000 project, paid for by donations to the Conservancy, was made from locally harvested — then bent, woven and fastened — Texas ash, ligustrum, depression willow and other natural materials. Workers, including staff members from Austin Tree Experts, hauled in 10 tons of the stuff, much of it taken from the Hershey Ranch near Stonewall. Eight tons were employed in the final product.

“One guy kept coming by to give us ligustrums,” North Carolina-based Dougherty says about the invasive Asian trees, also known as glossy privets, that run rampant in Austin parks and greenbelts. “He hates ligustrums. He said, ‘You’re going to love these.’”

UPDATES: More children’s features are part of Pease Park overhaul

The fantastical huts — Dougherty has called them “lairs for feral children or wayward adults” — were built in three weeks by the artist and his son, Sam, along with a brigade of local volunteers and consultants from Houston’s Weingarten Art Group.

A major part of the backing came from Harlon’s Fund, named by the Humphreys family of Austin for their deceased son.

“He was so outdoorsy,” says Conservancy board member Laurie Humphreys, his mother, fighting back tears during a preview tour of the site. “He loved nature. It’s for all people and all kinds of people. In nature, everyone gets along.”

American-Statesman Staff
Sam Dougherty works on a “Stickwork” sculpture that was made possible by the Pease Park Conservancy. The Conservancy is committed to enhancing the cultural environment of the park. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

How they grow

Dougherty often starts with a sketched footprint for his “Stickwork” structures, which can look like swirling birds’ nests, humongous vessels, animated creatures or habitations more conventional than the stick cottages in Pease Park. Since the Austin sculptures are placed close together, they also operate as a maze.

“The plans are open enough to ad lib,” says Dougherty, who created his first sculpture, “Maple Body Wrap,” in 1982 after studying English and then hospital and health administration before turning to art history and sculpture. “The shapes are determined somewhat by the material. We started out with one thing, but it kept curving into something else. Also, scale comes into play. The trees are low here, so we wanted to tuck them under the trees.”

The site off Parkway, not far from Windsor Road above Shoal Creek, was chosen principally for accessibility and parking, but it is also slightly sheltered by nearby mature trees and not clearly visible from North Lamar Boulevard (nobody wants a rubbernecking accident).

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“We try to make them look like they had already been here,” Dougherty says. “But we also want there to be some uncertainty about their origins. Passersby watched it grow, and some have doubled back to see it look so good. Others told us, ‘These are not going to grow for you.’”

Although they are firmly planted in the ground, the twisted saplings are definitely dead sticks.

American-Statesman Staff
Artist Patrick Dougherty and local volunteers built a sculpture made entirely out of tree saplings on the west side of Pease Park along Parkway. RALPH BARRERA / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Growing pains

Dougherty rediscovered carpentry while building a small cabin. There are 288 “Stickwork” projects around the world and, he has always wanted to work in Austin. The most recent previous “Stickwork” was raised in Miami, and he will be moving on to South Carolina, Oklahoma, Ohio and Utah soon.

Although he loves working with his hands, Dougherty emphasizes that constructing a “Stickwork” is serious business, and injuries are not unknown when dealing with stubborn materials. Born in 1945, he plans to keep building these fantasias as long as his health holds up. Sam — “my hedge against retirement” — has been working alongside him for a year and a half.

The crew was undeterred by the snow and ice days during their stay in Austin.

“Everybody agreed not to go out on the highway for us,” he says with a laugh. “We had the roads to ourselves.”

Among the last-minute chores: adding fire retardant and tightening window frames so that folks who feel compelled to do so can jump through them. To keep children from feeling trapped or scared, no doors were included.

He has never duplicated a “Stickwork” piece, but he returned to the Morris Arboretum at the University of Pennsylvania to build a new concept on the spot where a retired one had stood.

For such commissions, the natural storyteller quips, “You just have to find somebody who doesn’t know enough to say no.”

He says the Austin group of fanciful dwellings should last two years. The Conservancy will maintain the highly interactive artwork, light it at night and then, with the help of Austin Tree Experts, mulch the remains to spread around the park.

“We’ll have one great year,” he says. “Then one pretty good year. Then we begin counting before it deteriorates. We don’t want it to look disheveled.”