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Art, nature combine to bring unusual sculpture to Bernheim

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By Alex Wimsatt

 CLERMONT - What could perhaps be described as the collision of fine art and nature was recently unveiled during a public ceremony at Bernheim Arboretum and Research Forest. 

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Three weeks and countless man-hours of intensive crafting on the part of world-renowned sculptor Patrick Dougherty and more than 50 volunteers culminated with the unveiling of “Snake Hollow” at the Bernheim visitor’s center.

The piece, named for its serpentine shape and sweeping lines, covers approximately 846 feet and is made of willow branches gathered from throughout Bullitt, Jefferson and Nelson counties.  

During the unveiling ceremony, Bernheim Executive Director Mark Wourms described the significance of the piece and its evolution from concept to fruition. 

Composed of natural materials, “Snake Hollow” will last for only a few years before it returns to the earth from which it came.

“It is the use, renewal and repurposing of willow that makes this piece so special,” Wourms said.

Bernheim trustee, Tom Block, who is the great-grandson of the arboretum and research forest’s founder, Isaac Wolf Bernheim, said the piece personifies his ancestor’s legacy of creating a place where art and nature can be one. 

Block said Dougherty truly understood his great-grandfather’s vision and he thanked the artist for bringing it to life.

Dougherty, who came to Bernheim shortly after installing a piece in France, said “Snake Hollow” turned out just as he had imagined when he first sketched the monumental structure.

Resting among the trails that meander through the arboretum and research forest, Dougherty said the piece was meant to mimic those trails through its labyrinth of winding paths.

“It adds another variety of trails,” Dougherty said. 

While Dougherty’s design is aesthetically pleasing with its variation of lines and shapes, Dougherty said real world concerns had to be taken into consideration.

He didn’t want people to get stuck as they wandered throughout the piece, so he made sure the final design left plenty of room to move.

Though utility was an initial concern, Dougherty said it didn’t hinder the aesthetics of the piece.

“We were constantly adding lines to create a sweeping feeling,” Dougherty said. “It has a slight bit of power over you in terms of its direction.”

In addition to creating a piece that’s beautiful and accessible, he wanted the sculpture to be visible, which is why the site near the visitor’s center was chosen. 

To achieve the best use of the space he talked with visitors and considered the situation of structures and trees around the visitor’s center in order to make the piece fit into its landscape.

Dougherty said the piece invokes the concept of primitive structures that so many have imagined at one time or another.

  “It’s kinda built into us, this idea of building a simple shelter,” Dougherty said. “This is sort of the palace version of that.”

While working on “Snake Hollow,” Dougherty stayed at Bernheim’s artist’s residence.

When asked what he thought of his three-week visit to Bullitt County, Dougherty said he didn’t get out much because he was so enthralled by his work, but he enjoyed his stay.

“The people have been really friendly. I would get out every now and then to go to Kroger (in Shepherdsville) and people would come talk to me,” Dougherty said. “I felt welcomed.”

Dougherty, who resides in Chapel Hill, N.C. with his wife and son, began combining his carpentry skills with his love of nature in 1980 when he started crafting small pieces in his back yard. 

He quickly moved from single pieces to monumental site-specific installations. To date he has built over 200 massive sculptures around the world.