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Looking back at 'The Big Easy'

Patrick Dougherty's "The Big Easy" was projected to stay up until 2019, but was taken down in August due to heavier than expected rainfall this year.
Patrick Dougherty's "The Big Easy" was projected to stay up until 2019, but was taken down in August due to heavier than expected rainfall this year.

Although Patrick Dougherty’s sculpture “The Big Easy" was projected to be on display until 2019, it was removed from the Duke Gardens Aug. 22 due to rain damage sustained since its construction in February 2017. The saplings used to weave the structure had started to deteriorate, and Duke Gardens opted to remove the entire instillation before it became a safety hazard. 

The sculpture's early demise did not overly concern Dougherty, who believes that his sculptures, like the saplings they are constructed from, have a life cycle. 

“I like the idea of temporary generally because I feel like it redirects the viewer back to a more intense viewing experience,” Dougherty said. “In other words, it’s only available for a certain number of months or a year or something, and you probably have to enjoy it while it’s there.”

Visitors who were mystified by the name “The Big Easy” may be surprised to learn that the name did not have a deeper meaning. Dougherty said he simply wanted a name that seemed light and airy. 

According to the artist, working at Duke was a great experience in terms of logistics and community support. Dougherty was assisted by his son, students, employees of Duke Gardens and miscellaneous volunteers. Dougherty said his network of helpers not only helped him but also built a bit of community while they worked.

While searching for an appropriate location, Dougherty observed that people would often congregate in the gardens, play frisbee and just hang out on the grand lawn. Duke Gardens ultimately chose that site, which turned out to be optimal because it provided maximum viewing exposure and vantage points.

“You have one feeling about it when you see it in the context of the meadow,” Dougherty said. “If you go inside it …, you’re just seeing the work itself.”

During its lifetime, the sculpture received varied reactions from visitors. Children loved to explore the interior as if it were a maze or jungle gym. College students, were observed “romping around” and photographing themselves with “The Big Easy” for their social media accounts. On a more sober note, Dougherty said that the sculpture “prompted people to think of the natural world” and sometimes inspired nostalgia.

“I think a lot of the reactions to it were pleasure and pleasurable experiences that they had encountered in their life, and the sculpture tends to remind them of those moments,” he said.

Recent rain and extreme weather may pose logistical obstacles to future installations.  

Robert Mottern, director of horticulture at the Duke Gardens, points out that 2018 was unusually wet even prior to Hurricane Florence, and moisture in the grass at the base of “The Big Easy” made the sculpture a unstable. 

Mottern said Duke Gardens would consider hosting future sculptures, as long as they are secure and safe. 

“The Big Easy” was a “very popular feature to have on display in the garden," he said. 

Given the success of “The Big Easy,” Dougherty would be interested in doing another installation at Duke, possibly as early as 2020. He typically designs his installations once the exact location is chosen and finalizes his plans just days before work begins. If you see him arranging and weaving saplings on campus in 2020, feel free to offer a helping hand. Dougherty welcomes volunteers, who often are surprised at how instrumental they can be in creating a sublime work of art. 


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