Villa Tempesta at the Hermitage Museum & Gardens

The second graders’ eyes bugged, and their mouths fell open as they entered a walled-off garden and spied a giant sculpture made entirely of sticks.

One boy pointed and said, to no one in particular, “What is that?”

“Castle,” another child guessed.

The class, from Richard Bowling Elementary School in Norfolk, was cautioned about touching, then set free to explore. One boy came close and marveled at how the branches were tightly woven to craft a circular, mazelike, 18-foot-tall structure with six entrances, six towers and lots of peephole windows. “Somebody took years to build this,” he said, earnestly.

With a 96-foot circumference, there was plenty of room for the children to run squealing in and out of the piece and hide in its tucked-in spaces.

It was mid-December on the grounds of Norfolk’s Hermitage Museum & Gardens, where Patrick Dougherty’s latest Stickwork sculpture had gone up two months earlier.

With the help of dozens of volunteers, the building of Villa Tempesta took just three weeks, aided by mostly ideal weather. That’s the schedule for all of Dougherty’s constructions –three weeks making a piece, then a weeklong break at home in Chapel Hill, N.C. Since he started making these unique sculptures in 1983, he has developed an international reputation. The Hermitage has a display inside the museum depicting his other projects, from a 2014 house-sized maze in France to a 1988 piece that whipped around stepladders inside New York’s World Trade Center.

Since fall, Villa Tempesta has been a pilgrimage of wonder for a continuous stream of visitors. The title—Italian for country house of storms—was partly inspired by Hurricane Matthew, which roared in during construction, yet barely budged the piece.

Jen Duncan, the Hermitage’s executive director, says nearly 4,000 people visited the sculpture in its first two months. Art scholars and non-aficionados alike are attracted to Dougherty’s work. “Everybody I talk to is nuts about it,” she says. “It takes you back to when you were a little kid playing in the woods and pretending you were living there.”

The piece suggests a huge nest awaiting a dinosaur-scale bird to hatch volleyball-sized eggs. Robins may land on it and pause, admiring the technique.

Except the form goes way beyond … nest. There is both humor and artistic seriousness in the piece. It is roundish, like most things in nature; add in its mystery, and it evokes ancient forms like Stonehenge. The piece also mirrors the built environment nearby, especially the serpentine brick wall partly surrounding it.

Patrick, his son Sam and his wife Linda Johnson attended the Stickwork Opening Party on October 21.

Dougherty’s works can suggest a whirling force of nature or fairy-tale characters. Peepholes might be eyes, and entryways, mouths about to speak.

And it’s on the 12-acre, waterfront grounds of the Hermitage, an early 20th century mansion in the Arts and Crafts style, with lots of wood trim carved with botanical imagery—an ideal pairing with Dougherty’s environmental emphasis.

Villa Tempesta is his second Coastal Virginia sculpture. In 1990, as the artist built a piece that whipped around inside a Virginia Beach art center, he shared that the value of his work, which typically lasts no more than two years, is in “its absolute tentativeness. Like the fort you visited as a kid and the next day, isn’t there.” He describes his art “as tentative as the woods themselves.” All of which remains true.

Two weeks into the Hermitage piece, on a sun-drenched Sunday morning, Dougherty pulled back from the busy hive of stick-weavers to eyeball the overall form.

“It’s a crisscross figure eight,” he explained. With five days to go before the opening gala, the pattern wasn’t yet clearly visible. To create it, he and his crew were capping the wall of the piece in a woven stick braid all the way around. “It connects the whole thing,” he said, and mimics capping on the nearby brick wall. “I always come without an idea and try to think up something that fits the space.”

Photo by Teresa Annas

Dougherty, at 71, is tall and fit, a striking figure even in jeans and a T-shirt. On site, he appeared efficient, unpretentious and kind. Working alongside him was his son Sam, a recent college graduate who plans to become a potter but is now assisting his father. They began by gathering truckloads of pliable sweetgum saplings from a field in Suffolk and laying them out at the site.

Next, Dougherty spray-painted a footprint and drilled 60 holes along it. He set three thick sticks in each hole and used those to set his basic structure. Volunteers helped at every stage, including filling in all over with sticks placed in a directional way that implied movement.

“It’s kind of windswept,” said volunteer Sharon Swift, an art professor at Virginia Wesleyan College. With helpers, he talked about “making a mark” with a stick, as though it was a pencil mark on a drawing.

“He’s a really good teacher,” said Pamela Lassiter, an art teacher at Maury High School in Norfolk. “He encourages you and shows you what to do.” She was using all her strength to jam and weave sticks into a section of the wall. “He puts these in like toothpicks!”

Moments later Dougherty paused from his labors and swung by to examine hers. “Oh, that looks really good, but …”

After the Oct. 21 unveiling, Dougherty would head home to a remote log cabin he built himself, which is what led him to his lifelong devotion to Stickwork. “Turns out I had only one house in me, but I had lots of giant sculptures.”

Patrick Dougherty’s Villa Tempesta will be on display around two years at the Hermitage Museum & Gardens, 7637 North Shore Rd., Norfolk. It’s free to walk the grounds and view the sculpture. Museum admission is $12 for adults, $8 for military, students and children and free for ages 4 and younger. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Sundays. 757-423-2052.

Teresa Annas
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