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Sapling Structure at St. John’s, Collegeville

COLLEGEVILLE — Like something out of a child’s dream, environmental artist Patrick Dougherty’s playful roadside creation defies convention.

The cluster of wooden “chapelets” envisioned by the 67-year-old from Chapel Hill, N.C., was completed Friday afternoon with the help of several local volunteers and students.

“We used sticks by the ton,” Dougherty said at Friday’s outdoor reception, which featured refreshments and live music for the crowd that had gathered to celebrate its completion.

Stella Maris Chapel was the inspiration for his outdoor sculpture, which took three weeks to finish with materials harvested from St. John’s Arboretum.

“We had great weather. And we had an abundance of saplings, which made it easy,” Dougherty said. “Everything went just so perfectly that it was impossible to believe.”

Believing in the impossible, however, was what it took to create “Lean on Me,” his life-size artwork that visitors can explore and walk through at St. John’s University.

“Things that are a little off-kilter are more interesting than things that stand up. These things lean on each other and create a kind of a dependency,” Dougherty said. “They look friendly.”

Students from the College of St. Benedict/St. John’s University and St. John’s Preparatory School also had a hand in erecting the structure.

“We invited Patrick to come to Central Minnesota to create one of his pieces because he is such a collaborative artist. He doesn’t work alone,” said Brother David Paul Lange, an associate professor of art at CSB/SJU and one of the coordinators of the project.

“Because the nature of our two colleges is so collaborative — so much of what we do here is so collaborative — he and his kind of work seem to fit so perfectly with us, in addition to our focus on sustainability and the environmental studies program here.”

Rachel Melis, an associate professor of art at CSB/SJU and a project coordinator, saw Dougherty’s art on display at other colleges and helped bring him to  Minnesota.

“There are other artists who do use natural materials, but this is natural materials with such a high level of craft and an invitation to human beings to imagine themselves as part of nature … what we can do when we live harmoniously with nature,” Melis said.

The project began Sept. 3 and more than 300 volunteers were involved in the construction, which took place during eight-hour work days, according to Lange.

“I love nature and I love the arboretum, so I thought it was a really cool opportunity to get involved,” said Tess Foster, a junior at St. Ben’s. “One thing that I found really surprising was how malleable the wood was. It was really easy to weave in and out.”

Children at the reception ran in and out of Dougherty’s creation, playing hide-and-seek with the slivers of sunlight that filtered through the rooftops and “windows.”

“With all the buildings leaning on each other, I think it really speaks about this whole community in this area,” Foster said. “It’s just breathtaking to me.”

“Lean on Me” will be on display along the main road  in Collegeville for two years.

“Using only what came from the land right here at St. John’s, Patrick shows us that wonder is all around us,” said Richard Ice, dean of academic affairs at CSB/SJU.

Dougherty said, “Saplings are imaginative objects. And my job as a sculptor is to capture people’s imagination and to build things that make people come running.”