Dougherty at Dumbarton Oaks

Patrick Doughtery, Dumbarton Oaks

Patrick Dougherty on site at his installation at Dumbarton Oaks

About a month ago I received an e-mail from a colleague in the design field asking for assistance with an intriguing project scheduled for that iconic Washington, DC  garden, Dumbarton Oaks. The search was on for tree branches and saplings that could be fashioned by landscape artist Patrick Dougherty into an installation for one of the most famous areas at Dumbarton, the Ellipse.

As some of you may know, I recently stumbled upon one of Dougherty’s other works at the Morris Aboretum,  called the Summer Palace. It is mysterious, graceful, organic, and – well, just beautiful. So I couldn’t wait to see what he had in mind for the Ellipse.

Last Saturday, having been politely rebuffed in my attempts to get a ticket to his talk at Dumbarton this week, entitled “Primitive Ways in an Accelerated World” (no space available), I decided to head to the garden and see if I could at least see what was going on. My timing was perfect – not only was the project almost complete (although not quite), I had a chance to meet Dougherty himself and get a few details about the construction materials and process.

First, let’s set the stage. In the words of Dumbarton’s website, the Ellipse was designed by Beatrix Farrand, Dumbarton’s designer (and the first woman American landscape architect), to be “one of the quietest and most peaceful parts in the garden,”  as a central ellipse of grass surrounded by a high wall of American boxwood Buxus sempervirens. In 1958, Alden Hopkins replaced the declining boxwood with a double row of American hornbeams, Carpinus caroliniana, clipped into an aerial hedge sixteen feet high and fifteen feet wide.

Dumbarton Oaks, Ellipse, Carpinus caroliniana

A view of part of the clipped hornbeam hedge in the Ellipse in 2004.

Dumbarton Oaks, Ellipse, carpinus caroliniana

Even when bare, the pleached hornbeam hedge makes a powerful architectural statement in the garden.

This area (which also now includes a central fountain as a focal point) provides a place to rest, reflect and be still. Its static, monumental nature is what has prompted Dougherty to create a series of what he calls “running figures,” grounded at the base but lacing themselves up into the pleached, leafy canopies of the trees.

Dumbarton Oaks, Patrick Dougherty

The installation of "running figures" glimpsed from a path below the Ellipse

Dumbarton Oaks, Ellipse, Patrick Dougherty

Dougherty's woven pieces reach up into the upper canopies of the pleached hornbeam hedge, interrupting their mass and creating a playful sense of motion.

On the day I visited, Dougherty and his team were about two days away from completing the project. Volunteers dotted the lawn area, completing the day’s work weaving sapling material in the bases of individual figures, then clearing away leftover materials so the area would be clean before the next day’s efforts started.

A volunteer takes a break from sculpting one of the sapling figures on the Ellipse.

Dumbarton Oaks, Patrick Dougherty, Ellipse

Behind the fountain to the left, the scaffolding used to build the higher portions of the figures is visible.

I asked Dougherty what kinds of sapling material he was using. In addition to Cornus florida (flowering dogwood) pieces that I could see, he said they had received maple, elm, hornbeam (Carpinus betulus and C. caroliniana), and sweetgum saplings. All were locally found, many from a farm in Buckeystown, MD (near Frederick).

Dumbarton Oaks, Ellipse, Patrick Dougherty

A closer look at the wide variety of saplings and branches used to construct the "running figures" installation at Dumbarton Oaks.

The installation, which has been named “Easy Rider,” will be on display through this fall and the winter and spring of 2011 “until it becomes naturally weathered and unable to maintain its stability,” according to a Dumbarton Oaks press release. The Summer Palace, which Dougherty described to me as less sturdily built than these figures, is over two years old. Given that fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if this installation lasts far longer than that. Do try to visit if you’re in the area. Dumbarton’s hours, which are relatively limited, can be found on its website. More information about Dougherty and his work is available on his own website, here.

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4 Comments on “Dougherty at Dumbarton Oaks”

  1. Liz Reed Says:

    I’d love to get to Dumbarton Oaks and see this! thanks for writing about it, Melissa!


  2. Hey Melissa, what a cool idea. I tried to get a look from the photos, but could not tell. Were the ends of the branches just dug into the ground?
    Love the pleached hornbeams, actually just the whole idea of the Ellipse, very nice to have a ‘green’ resting place.

    • Melissa Says:

      Yes, I think so, although I was there only at the end. I may see Dougherty again in February when I visit my son in California where Dougherty is doing another installation in Palo Alto and I’ll ask him.


  3. […] Clark, in her blog, wrote about the Easy Rider installation last September and posted some pictures of its […]


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