Secret Garden: Mounts’ stickwork sculpture connects visitors with earth, childhood

Artist Patrick Dougherty puts the finishing touches on his massive stickwork structure at Mounts Botanical Garden. The exhibit, which has five rooms, was built from 30,000 pounds of willow saplings and the help of more than 100 volunteers. Tim Stepien/The Coastal Star

By Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley

As you turn onto the Great Lawn of Mounts Botanical Garden in West Palm Beach, you may be in for a surprise. There, in the near distance, you’ll see what looks to be a fort or a maze. But instead of being made out of local coral stone or other rock, it’s made of sticks.

Like many visitors we talked to, you may ask who put it there and, seeing an entry into the structure, you might even wonder if you can enter it.

Welcome to Cutting Corners, a stickwork created by Patrick Dougherty, a North Carolina artist whose medium is, yes, sticks.

It’s named in part for its five rooms with interlocking corners. The rooms range in size from about 14-by-10 feet to a 12-foot square, and the walls stand about 16 feet tall.

Dougherty created his first stickwork in 1982, when he used his carpentry skills and love of nature to create a small piece displayed on a pedestal. Today his creations tend to be like this one — big enough so people are welcome to step inside and walk through his sculpture for an experience that can lead to an emotional connection with his art.

During the past 30 years, he has built more than 250 stickworks from Scotland to Japan to Sweden, and all over the United States, including Miami and Vero Beach.

“This is the first site-specific construction of an artwork in which we’ve ever invested,” says Rochelle Wolberg, curator-director of Mounts.

She was introduced to Dougherty’s art in 2004 while attending a conference in Portland, Oregon. “I was mesmerized with his work and never forgot him,” she says.

In fact, she was the impetus behind Dougherty’s bringing his creative talents to South Florida this year. To create a work that would be well-suited to what Dougherty calls this “gem of a garden,” he came for a site visit last summer and stayed for 48 hours.

That was time enough for him to roughly sketch his ideas on the outside of a manila folder. And that’s all he carried into the field when he returned in January to begin construction of a work that covers about 3,500 square feet.

“I think a detailed drawing can overwhelm reality because it becomes a fixed guide that may not reflect what’s really out there when you start to work. The biggest need on site is to maximize your resources and solve problems as you go,” he says.

And there can be problems when working with more than 100 volunteers divided into teams that work two, four-hour shifts a day for about three weeks, totaling 632 volunteer hours in 159 shifts.

Dougherty likes working with volunteers because it takes some of the enigma out of his art. After all, if volunteers can help create his work, it must be approachable, he says.

The volunteers helped him fashion his work from 30,000 pounds of willow saplings brought by flatbed truck from a nursery in upstate New York. And before you ask, they cost about $8,000 plus $4,500 for delivery.

The building process began with Dougherty and his son, Sam, creating a framework of thicker willow pieces set upright in 2-foot-deep holes around the perimeter of the structure. Then Dougherty showed the volunteers how to weave the thinner saplings onto this framework to cover the uprights and add grace and flow to his work. He designated each volunteer a small area on which to use his or her own creativity to complete the sculpture.

“I think of applying the saplings as drawing. I do with sticks what another artist might do with the marks of a pencil,” says Dougherty.

He also believes that many adults played with sticks as children, so his art conjures up those and other childhood memories, providing a starting point for them to comprehend and connect with his work.

The structure is roofless so that it can better withstand hurricanes. After all, Dougherty’s work is expected to be on view for about two years before it self-destructs and is “gracefully disposed of” without leaving a carbon footprint, explains Wolberg.

Until then, Dougherty hopes that his stick art will resonate with visitors.

“I think my sculptures tap into the viewers’ fantasies and imagination,” he says. “They see a doorway, the start of a path, and wonder what’s around the corner.”

If You Go

Where: Mounts Botanical Garden, 531 N. Military Trail, West Palm Beach

Information: Call 233-1757 or visit For more information about artist Patrick Dougherty, visit

Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily

Cost: $10 (nonmembers); free (members); $5 (children 5-12); $5 (students with ID/RAP card; active military with ID)

Tickets: Available online or at Mounts Botanical Garden’s main gate

Deborah S. Hartz-Seeley can be reached at

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