The willow tree structure being built in front of the Conley Art Building by Patrick Dougherty will stay on campus until it falls apart. This piece of art is made with natural materials that won’t harm the environment. Photos by Dalton Runberg / The Collegian

Sustainable sculpture erected on campus

The willow tree structure being built in front of the Conley Art Building by Patrick Dougherty will stay on campus until it falls apart. This piece of art is made with natural materials that won’t harm the environment.
Photos by Dalton Runberg / The Collegian

Patrick Dougherty, an internationally recognized artist, is making his mark at Fresno State through the manipulation of willow tree branches to create a sustainable sculpture.

The Center for Creativity and the Arts, part of the College of Arts and Humanities, invited the artist to work on campus and showcase his developing sculptures.

Students and members of the community have had the opportunity to work alongside the artist by volunteering and becoming part of the project itself. The artist and his team began work on the structure Nov. 5 and will continue working through Nov. 28.

The rolling hills in front of the Conley Art Building on the east side of Fresno State’s campus has become a construction site.

The placement of the piece gives spectators a 360-degree view of the structure and the work being done. Once completed, passers-by will have the chance to step inside and walk through it, Dougherty said.

The Center for Creativity and the Arts’ theme for the 2012-2013 academic year is “Consumption and Sustainability.”

Dougherty and the volunteers are using nature’s elements to create two sculptures that will flow into the two hills.

The willow tree branches used for the structure come from a pond basin near campus as well as an area near the Clovis Botanical Gardens. Others were purchased.

“People are looking now for renewable resources and say if you cut these sticks off of a stump you could cut those same number of sticks every year for 40 years,” Dougherty said.

“The idea is that you would have something, a material that renewed itself,” Dougherty said. “If this falls down, you grind it up and make mulch, make more sticks. So there’s a bit of that cycle.”

The interwoven sticks hold together without the help of nails or glue, similar to what is seen in nature such as a bird’s nest or a beaver’s dam. It is a style people have employed for thousands of years, Dougherty said.

Volunteer Brionna Mendoza, a freshman student double majoring in history and anthropology, took advantage of becoming part of the art project. She had four years experience working in art but nothing to this extent, she said.

“I thought it would be a really interesting project as well as something personally rewarding for myself because I still love art,” Mendoza said. “And it is an honor and a privilege to work alongside an artist, a really cool, awesome artist.”

Mendoza said she has learned that you cannot make the branches do what you want them to do, you have to go along with the material.

“It’s almost like the sculpture takes the form itself. There’s a plan, but it’s like the branches have their own mind,” Mendoza said.

“It’s really cool using trees to build something instead of synthetic materials,” Mendoza said. “With so many people working on it, there is a lot more art that goes into it. I feel like it is more socially aware and inclusive of the community around.”

Dougherty’s inspiration for the project came from seeing, in an airline magazine, the Great Wall of China.

He thought, “this might be something interesting. Something that looks like a building, but is thin like a wall,” Dougherty said.

“I’m always looking for really great sites to work on and to try to build something that will excite people’s imagination,” Dougherty said.

The piece is going to give a sense of the hill’s geography Dougherty said, like the Great Wall of China.

The sculpture has integrated with the environment at Fresno State and spectators. Erin Foster, a sophomore and art education major, has taken notice.

“I think it’s really cool that we get to have this on our campus and it gets to stay here until it breaks down,” Foster said.

She is looking forward to being able to walk through the piece and seeing how it relates to the space.

The sculpture, Dougherty said, can last up to two years before breaking down.

“I think that it just kind of hints at simpler ways of life,” Dougherty said. “Sustainability means thinking about the environment to some degree and not being completely overwhelmed by technology. But remembering that we need trees. We personally need them because they inspire us and they stir us up a little bit. They make us feel like creatures.”

“I think there is a little bit of a touch with that kind of idea of sustainability and remembering the earth and our place on it and how much we need green space in order to survive and thrive as people.”

  • William S.

    This is a beautiful work of art. But does it truly send a message of sustainability? We live in a world that must use synthetic materials to prevent 7 billion people from decimating nature overnight.

    At the end of the day this sculpture is a monument to mulch. I would much rather see a structure made of recycled plastic that would stand for 1000 years as a tribute to synthetic materials that helped ‘save’ our natural environment.

  • Dan S

    Who is this confused person with the above comment? It is a grand example of how people in disconnection with the natural world create unsustainable logic which drives decisions made on utter insanity. Anyone who has a relationship with willow trees, mulch, etc, know that when you cut back willows they grow back fast, healthier than before… humans have nurtured this relationship with this plant for thousands of years. And mulch is exceedingly useful in landscaping, gardening, and soil building—something the current modernized farming has forgotten– and means that the artwork returns to the earth and leaves a positive footprint (that is if we pretend the structure wasn’t sprayed with fire retardant). At any rate, however, comparing this art in a negative respect to a recycled structure that would last one thousand years without decomposing… you can’t be serious.