What's the mysterious construction project taking shape on the grounds of the Palo Alto Art Center? Willow saplings, sticks and twigs are being planted and intertwined on the grass facing Newell Road. There's fencing and scaffolding, and a white-haired man with a pleasant North Carolina accent directing it all.
"It's row houses," Patrick Dougherty says, "in a zig-zag pattern."
In a way, yes. This fanciful framework will ultimately be a sculpture with architectural flair, dreamed up by a prominent environmental artist. Dougherty has created hundreds of site-specific installations that resemble palaces, playhouses, faces and other shapes. He's worked in Ireland rain, thigh-high snow at Smith College, and desert heat. Row houses in Palo Alto must be easier on the constitution.
Dougherty's medium of choice is trees. Usually willows, like the tractor-trailer load that was brought to Palo Alto from a Pescadero farm. But sometimes maple, rose apple or even bamboo will do.
The artist draws inspiration from each site, then plans out a sculpture with sketches and word associations. He and his helpers build a base of sticks that grows up into a sort of shell. Then that shape becomes a canvas for patterns of sticks, twigs and greenery.
"There's a line logic in play, some kind of rationale," Dougherty says in an interview at the art center. "Like a beaver's dam. The sticks bunch up like there are forces at play."
Some of his sculptures feel like they've been swirled by a storm, or simply windswept. Titles include "Jug or Naught," "Spinoffs" and "Toad Hall."
This month, Dougherty will be creating at the Palo Alto Art Center through Jan. 28 during a three-week artist residency. All his sculptures, he says, take three weeks to build.
His current site struck him for several reasons: the length of the grassy expanse, the intimate feel created by overhanging trees, and the nearness to houses. "It seemed like we do have urbanization in some ways," he says.
Hence, he created a hybrid. The front of the long tree sculpture will have the whimsical, green row-house feel, with big circles like picture windows. The back will feel more natural and down-to-earth, he says. "You'll feel like you've come to an indigenous setting, where there's hunting and gathering going on."
Dougherty encourages people to get close to his sculptures; here, visitors will be able to stroll inside and peer out the front "windows." While a fence has been up during the early part of construction, he plans to take it down soon so passers-by can get a good look at the process and ask questions. Even during this interview, Dougherty gets into several conversations with curious visitors. "I don't want a barrier with people," he says.
Dougherty has also clearly connected well with the art-center staff, several of whom are outside helping him.
"We were so thrilled that someone of his stature came here," curator Signe Mayfield says. The art center foundation commissioned the project, which was co-sponsored by the Palo Alto Public Art Commission and also fueled by a federal grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services.
Besides being a fan of Dougherty's work, Mayfield is also impressed by the artist's organization. Before the building started, Dougherty sent over pages and pages of text describing his scaffolding needs and other details.
Jan. 11, the first day of Dougherty's work on the art-center grounds, brought rain, but no one working in the damp grass seemed fazed.
"There's always something," Dougherty says. "You kind of have to be an all-weather person."
A sense of humor is also essential, and a driving creative force behind these storybook-like creations. "Sticks are so tied into our psyche," he says. "Kids play with sticks. It's a magic wand, a piece of a house."
Dougherty, a longtime lover of nature and carpentry, started building small sculptures in his backyard around 1980, and then grew from there. He seeks out local and renewable saplings to use, and is based in his handmade log house in North Carolina, where he lives with his family. He's come to California many times; sites of past projects include the Djerassi Resident Artists Program in Woodside, the San Jose Museum of Art, a private home in Portola Valley and the San Diego Wild Animal Park.
Several photos of Dougherty's work are now on display inside the Palo Alto Art Center as part of a new exhibition called "The Nature of Entanglements." The show also features contemporary basketry and other works inspired by intertwined forms of nature, by artists Gyongy Laky, Ruth Asawa, Timothy Berry, Dominic Di Mare and Kay Sekimachi.
There's also a space for visitors to make their own contributions to a weaving and wrapping art project, and a small show of bottle-house sculptures by Berkeley artist Mildred Howard. Howard is also planning an Eichler-inspired sculpture at the art center in the spring.
The shows are open through March 31. The art center will close April 1 for renovations.
Outside, though, Dougherty's new installation is set to stay up through Jan. 30, 2012. Most of his sapling works, he says, could last about two years, but "wear and tear might end their life sooner."
He adds with a smile, "You try to take them down while they still look good."
What: Environmental sculptor Patrick Dougherty is creating a new Palo Alto work during an artist's residency.
Where: Palo Alto Art Center, 1313 Newell Road
When: Dougherty is working on the site from about 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. through Jan. 28, possibly with the weekend of Jan. 22-23 off. Call the art center at 650-329-2366.
Info: Go to cityofpaloalto.org/artcenter. Dougherty will also give a free talk at the art center from 6:30 to 7:30 p.m. Jan. 27.
Winter exhibitions are up through March 31. Gallery hours are Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sundays from 1 to 5 p.m., and Thursday evenings from 7 to 9 p.m.