A “natural force” at Dumbarton Oaks

Easy Rider by Patrick Dougherty.  Click the photos to enlarge.

Dumbarton Oak Gardens is currently hosting  Easy Rider by the sculptor Patrick Dougherty. The installation is in the Ellipse, a large oval space rimmed by an aerial hedge of pruned hornbeams and anchored by a center Provençal fountain.

Dougherty works in woven saplings, and his sculptures evoke ancient rustic architecture, as well as nests, haystacks, and baskets.

He describes the Dumbarton Oaks work “as ‘running figures,’ or twisted architectural elements, that rise into the trees and pursue each other actively and gracefully around the Ellipse.”*

The “‘running figures’. . . rise into the trees and pursue each other . . . around the Ellipse.”
The elements of the sculpture can be seen as architectural or human-like.
The figures twist into the hornbeam.

Each element can be seen as a building or house with a doorway and window.  Each is just wide enough for an adult to stand in.  They are like sentry or guard houses.  If I anthropomorphize them, as the artist does himself, I would say they make me think of storybook soldiers running or even dancing.  They also seem to reference magical landscapes a la Lord of the Rings, yet they are not twee.

Looking at the center fountain from a window.

In an interview with The Washington Post last August, Dougherty said, “I was really thinking about how the natural world has been conscripted as manmade architecture. You don’t think about nature as being staid or over-organized, you think of it as having a life of its own. But there, they’re pruning it and fixing it up like a big living room. My idea was to throw that off kilter and bring in a natural force.”

The figures evoke “a natural force.”
The “house” reaches into the trees.
The saplings and the tree leaves merge.

While the Dumbarton Oaks Gardens are primarily the work of Beatrix Farrand, Alden Hopkins, who worked on the gardens at Williamsburg and the University of Virginia, also contributed to the design of the Ellipse.  The admittedly formal, rather static space is a nice blend of old and modern forms.  With “Easy Rider,” the contrast between the brown sapling branches and the green leaves is striking.  I imagine that it will be lovely in October when the leaves start to turn.

The double row of hornbeams.  The lower, outer hedge is clipped holly.
Steps leading away from the Ellipse.
Volunteers worked 21 days using a variety of saplings, chiefly maple.
The outside texture of a figure.
The inside texture. The saplings’ leaves dried in place.

The Dumbarton Oaks installation took a team of volunteers 21 days and a variety of saplings (chiefly maples) to complete.  You can see volunteers working on a similar installation at DePauw University at this link.  Dougherty has built over 200 of these large works all over the world.

Melissa Clark, in her blog, Garden Shoots, wrote about the Easy Rider installation last September and posted some pictures of its construction.  Her blog also has a post about another Dougherty sculpture, The Summer Palace.

Easy Rider will remain through Fall 2011 (the brochure does not give an end date).  The gardens (at R and 31st Streets, N.W.) are open daily (except Mondays) from 2-6 p.m.  General admission is $8.

*Installation brochure.

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