Patrick Dougherty branches out 

A public installation makes a good sticking point for Sarasota’s new contemporary art museum.

This month, travelers along Sarasota’s South Tamiami Trail may be startled to see what looks like a cross between a giant tumbleweed and a primitive shelter rising up on the front lawn of historic Sarasota High School. Built of intricately intertwined branches and big enough to stand under and walk through, the mystery structure was luring drivers off the road, out of their cars and onto the green wearing inquisitive gazes last Saturday on the sixth day of its construction.

“I want it to be questionable as to whether it’s manmade,” says the object’s creator, sculptor Patrick Dougherty. “The materials need to exert themselves in such a way that the illusion is that it almost just appeared. Maybe it just blew in there.”

Each year the artist travels the country, and sometimes the world, constructing up to 10 of his sculptures with teams of local volunteers. Some are tucked into quiet corners on college campuses; others, like one Dougherty built last October on Federation Square, a cultural hub in Melbourne, Australia, sit in the midst of urban traffic. Demand for them keeps the itinerant artist, who resides in Chapel Hill, N.C., in a log home that was his first large-scale building project, on the road.

Through Jan. 27, Dougherty is scheduled to continue the very public construction of his latest sculpture — passersby are welcome to stop and ask questions — on the grounds of the would-be Sarasota Museum of Art. Called SMOA, the project is a division of the Ringling College of Art and Design that aims to rehabilitate the historic Sarasota High School into a home for a 21,000-square-foot modern and contemporary art museum and continuing education classrooms. With about 70 percent raised of the estimated $22 million SMOA requires to open, the museum’s volunteer board and administration has begun to trumpet its existence in earnest for the first time since 2006, when an architectural design competition yielded plans for adapting the building into a sleek 21st-century space for the display of art.

Dougherty’s sculpture is the first of SMOA’s fundraising and awareness-generating ARTmuse events to go public. (The museum will also host the SMOA Inaugural Bash this weekend; tickets are sold out.) To hire the popular artist, the museum’s volunteer president, Wendy Surkis, raised just over $50,000 apart from the $15,503,680.85 that waits in the museum’s coffers to be spent on construction and a museum endowment once $22 million in pledges has been achieved.

“I count every penny because every single penny and every single donation is meaningful,” Surkis says.

A local landowner donated the five flatbed-truckloads of crape myrtle branches that Dougherty and his team of nearly 70 Sarasota-based volunteers are using to build the 25-foot-tall structure, which the sculptor conceived as “something halfway between a circus tent and a funhouse.” Upon completion, it will consist of six pinnacle-topped pillars linked by walls and a lace-like roof of loosely woven branches. The concept nods to Sarasota’s circus history, which Dougherty connects with his own interest in nomadic lifestyles (like that of the globe-trotting contemporary artist) and tribal housing. “We all contain a shadow of our hunter-gatherer past,” he says. “Kids play that out more fully than adults. But you know, adults — there’s a lot of closet stick gatherers out there, and they pool around where I am working.”

After a brief career in hospital administration, Dougherty began sculpting in the 1970s while in his 30s, starting by building a home for his family out of found wood, then studying art at the University of North Carolina, and eventually watching his second career bloom on an international stage. As for why Dougherty builds with “sticks,” his unpretentious term for the branches of maple and other saplings that he tames into flowing shapes and structures, the answer is simple.

“Sticks give me good ideas. All I have to do is pick up a handful of them and say, look at this, I could do this,” Dougherty says.

The accessibility of Dougherty’s sculptures — they are equally loved by art neophytes and art connoisseurs — was one reason SMOA sought out the artist; the symbolism of building a dwelling-like sculpture on the grounds of the museum’s hoped-for home was another.

“As Patrick transforms sticks into an environmentally friendly architectural environment, we are really transforming this historic building into a new and very vibrant use for the community,” Surkis explains.

In the meantime, regardless of whether or how soon SMOA assumes a more definitive shape itself, Sarasota residents and visitors stand to enjoy a glimpse of the possible future in the form of one very engaging public artwork. Just enter from the sidewalk on Tamiami Trail.

“A good sculpture ... is one that gives starting points to the viewer,” Dougherty says. “This is not a game to prevent the viewer from knowing what you’re trying to do. It’s something where you want to elucidate a point to such a degree where people are delighted.”

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