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Bernheim Forest's latest addition: a huge, free-form twig sculpture

Visitors explored Patrick Dougherty's sculpture Snake Hollow near the visitors center at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest. Dougherty and a crew of volunteers completed it in April.
Visitors explored Patrick Dougherty's sculpture Snake Hollow near the visitors center at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest. Dougherty and a crew of volunteers completed it in April.

CLERMONT — Internationally renowned sculptor Patrick Dougherty has created a larger-than-life wood sculpture for Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest, just south of Louisville.

Called Snake Hollow, the fascinating, ephemeral, biodegradable installation was designed and built — with the help of many volunteers and Bernheim staff — at the visitors center in less than three weeks in April.

Woven of willow, maple and other pliant saplings, twigs and branches, Snake Hollow is an undulating form with twists and turns, portholes and passageways that visitors may walk through and explore.

The circumference of the piece is 230 feet and fits into a space that is about 50 feet by 40 feet. Its maximum height is about 20 feet.

It takes its place in a long line of fantastical structures that have emerged from Dougherty's imagination. Guided by word associations that emerge for a particular place, the lay of the land and the direction the twigs lead as the work evolves, he brings the spark of an idea into three- dimensional, tangible reality.

During the past three decades, Dougherty has built more than 200 unique pieces around the world, in collaboration with museums, arboretums, universities and businesses.

In Châteaubourg, France, his weaving, Sortie de Cava, took the shape of nine tipsy, 22-foot-tall wine bottles. A photograph of it illustrates the cover of his book, Stickwork.

At the Contemporary Museum in Honolulu in 2003, Dougherty created Na Hale 'o waiawi, windswept naturalistic tree forms using strawberry guava saplings. Humanlike forms gathered in Stand By, which he created in 2000 at the Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority in North Carolina, Dougherty's home state.

The sculptures are surprising, eye-catching and finger-pointing fun.

"I especially enjoy my encounters in a new community and consider the time I spend as a kind of cultural exchange in which the energy of the people and the sense of the place are somehow folded back into the sculpture itself," he wrote in an artist's statement about the project.

From a simple preliminary sketch, Snake Hollow developed into a maze of arching tunnels, fragrant with fresh leaves and green wood, in which spiraling walls intertwine to form the shapes of two coiled-together snakes. Twig tips bear tufts of delicate white willow flowers and fluffy seeds that float in the air when jostled. You can walk in, around and through the many doors and passages that punctuate the flow and rhythm of their sinewy branch traces. It is an ever-changing work of natural art, with shifting sun and shadow patterns highlighting nuances in windows and walls throughout the day.

The project was a collaboration from the start, with volunteers helping in the construction and in the collection and trimming of the branches. Dougherty laid out the design plan and set the foundation saplings, and volunteers did much of the work in weaving the basic walls. Dougherty worked to keep the progress on track, interacting with visitors and workers, and completing the laying in of finish work with an outer layer of woven twigs.

Volunteer coordinator Amy Landon said the project was so popular that it was a challenge to be sure that everyone who wanted to be part of the process was assigned a time. Some volunteers came for horticultural therapy, others to apprentice and get the feel of a new sort of artistic expression.

Dougherty is as good at weaving people together as he is at building a solid stick structure, greeting newcomers and passersby, and setting everyone to work.

"Without the volunteers, this would be a much smaller sculpture," he said.

Kneeling next to a recently arrived worker, he said, "Pull all the branches through in this direction" while inserting saplings. Later, Dougherty dressed out the openings and finished the flow with a consistent organic "line logic" throughout.

Much of the willow of Snake Hollow was donated and collected at Tallgrass Farm, near McAfee in Mercer County. Sweetgum and maple saplings were harvested at Bernheim.

When the branches begin to deteriorate, the structure will be removed.

Berheim's executive director, Mark Wourms, said the process engaged visitors in Bernheim's mission to connect people with nature, and in its vision to do so with responsible ecological stewardship.

"Ninety-year-olds are as excited as 9-year-olds," he said. "In about two years, in true Bernheim style, we will take down this structure, chip it up and return it to the Earth as part of a natural cycle."