This article, written and photographed by Charlotte Geary, originally appeared in Modern Reston magazine.

      In Town Square Park at Reston Town Center sits a prominent new public art piece. From afar, the structure looks like cabins drawn with fluid brush strokes. As you get closer, you realize they are sturdy structures made of carefully bent sticks. And if you see the sculpture from above in one of the tall buildings nearby, it appears that a swirling ribbon of sticks is wrapping itself along the top of the whole thing.

      This sculpture is the latest creation by Patrick Dougherty, an internationally acclaimed artist who creates enormous art installations out of tree saplings. In the early 1980s, Dougherty combined his interests in carpentry, sculpture, and nature by experimenting with sticks as an art medium. As he became more experienced working with saplings, his creations grew in size from single pedestal pieces to enormous environmental works. Over the last 30 years, he has created more than 250 of these art pieces in locations around the world. Reston is the fortunate host of his latest creation.

      Dougherty and a large team of volunteers have been building the sculpture at Reston Town Center for two weeks. It is scheduled to be completed on Saturday, April 25, 2015, when there will be an opening celebration in its honor.

      I spoke with Patrick Dougherty about his sculptures and this Reston project, and he gladly offered some great insight into his work. Here are some interesting facts I learned about Patrick Dougherty and his Stick Work.


      1. The sticks hold themselves together.

      For the most part, the sticks are held together by nothing but the sticks themselves. There is no frame, twine, or adhesives. Instead, the sticks are connected by their natural tendency to grip onto each other and tangle. There are metal support beams at the base of the sculpture, which are embedded into the ground and spaced about two feet apart. They provide the overall structural base, but the rest of the sculpture consists of nothing but sticks. And it’s surprisingly sturdy.

      2. The sculpture represents “Primitive Ways in an Accelerated World.”

      That was the title of a presentation that Dougherty gave last week to a standing-room-only crowd at the Reston Community Center. His building methods and materials are reminiscent of ancient habitats. His creations can evoke a nostalgia for a simpler time, and can make people stop to imagine the buildings that may have existed centuries ago in that same spot. This sculpture creates a stark but refreshing contrast with the modern buildings of Reston Town Center. The park is surrounded by manmade towers, straight lines, and hard edges, while Dougherty’s structure is organic, rounded, flowing, and almost soft. Dougherty believes that sticks have an innate appeal to most people, starting in early childhood when kids use them as playthings. That appeal is timeless, even in this modern age.

      3. The sticks mimic pen strokes.

      “Everything you can do with a pencil you can do with a stick,” Dougherty claimed during his presentation at the RCC. That might be an overstatement, but he does make an interesting point. He was originally inspired to explore this medium when he realized that trees resemble lines on landscapes, and decided to use those lines as his own brush strokes. He pointed out that sticks are naturally tapered like pen strokes. He mimics conventional drawing techniques in the flowing stick “strokes” of his creations.

      4. The saplings were locally sourced from Northern Virginia.

      Dougherty and his team harvested truckloads of tree saplings from Willowsford, a community in Loudoun County. Dougherty uses locally sourced sticks in all his art pieces, so over the years he has worked in a variety of types of wood, depending on the resources available.

      5. The sculpture is designed to be approachable and inviting.

      Dougherty chose to put the installation off-center in the park, and very close to the sidewalk. He didn’t want it to appear distant and sacred; instead he wants people to step off the sidewalk and wander through it. The openings of the structure are intentionally placed in spots where sidewalks or stairs lead toward them, creating an easy path for people to enter. He wants people to go inside and explore.

      6. The sculpture is designed specifically for its location at Reston Town Center.

      Unlike many of Dougherty’s creations, this sculpture will be viewed from above, since it’s surrounded by tall buildings that give aerial views from homes and offices. The sculpture is designed to have a ribbon flowing around the top. When viewed from the ground, it looks like a static series of huts. From above, it looks like a swirling ribbon of motion. The height of the sculpture is also designed for its location — to help the sculpture fit into the natural landscape of Town Center Park, Dougherty designed it to be no taller than the trees that surround it.

      7. Many volunteers have helped to build it.

      This project was much too big for one person to tackle alone. Teams of volunteers have helped to collect the sticks and build the structure. These hardworking assistants have endured rain, cold, and sun (and scratches!) to contribute to this project. The morning that I took the above photo, it was cold and windy, but the volunteers weren’t complaining. They had a task to do. “A promise made is a debt unpaid,” said one smiling volunteer.

      8. Building an art piece in public with spectactors has its benefits.

      Dougherty’s sculptures must be built on location, and they take weeks to create. As a result, hundreds of Reston onlookers have stopped by this month to watch the progress. Some artists might be intimidated by the supervision, but Dougherty welcomes it and thrives on it. He says that the “energy of people passing by gets folded back into the work.” He also likes giving people an opportunity to watch artists at work, and learn that they are just “normal people looking for their rightful place in this world.”

      9. The sculpture will be fireproofed.

      So you don’t have to worry about that.

      10. The sculpture will be at Reston Town Center for about two years.

      Dougherty’s sculptures last a long time, but he does not intend for them to be permanent. He says that his organic building materials suggest a natural life cycle, and his art pieces do change and expire over time. Most of his pieces remain on display for about a year or two, with the longest lasting five years so far. It’s uncertain how long his sculpture will remain at Reston Town Center, but it is expected to be a feature of Town Square Park for about two years.


      If you’d like to learn more about Patrick Doughtery and his work, don’t miss his website at You have to see this photos of his creations to understand his work. And be sure come out to Reston Town Center to see this one in person. We’re truly lucky to have it here.

      Patrick Dougherty’s yet unnamed art piece is on display at Reston Town Center in Town Square Park. It is scheduled to be completed on April 25, 2015, and after that date it will be free and open to the public. For more information about this exhibit, refer to the Greater Reston Arts Center (GRACE).

      Charlotte Geary


      Lifestyle, event, and portrait photographer with a vibrant, joyful style and 17 years of professional experience.

      Located in Reston, Virginia near Washington, D.C. and available for travel.