San Francisco’s Upper Crust

© Liz Hager, 2009. All Rights Reserved


All photos in this post—Patrick Dougherty, Upper Crust, 2009, willow branches, Joseph L. Alioto Performing Arts Piazza, San Francisco (photos ©Liz Hager).

In the dead of a West Coast winter, when violent squalls relentlessly pummel us for days on end, any hint of gentler spring is a welcome thing. Thanks to the San Francisco Arts Commission and artist Patrick Dougherty, the sycamore trees at the Joseph L. Alioto Performing Arts Piazza (between City Hall and the Library) are already bursting with new growth. Through the magic of arboreal hair extensions, Dougherty has enhanced the pollarded trees with glorious crowns of willow saplings woven into fanciful swirling shapes. Huge hats, as the title of the piece—Upper Crust—suggests. The finished piece is a site-specific sculpture that runs roughly 150 long and eight feet high. It is such a convincingly natural integration that a pedestrian passing the installation work last Friday asked this VR contributor whether the trees grew this way. If only!


The sapling weave is Dougherty’s signature style. In the case of Upper Crust, the finger- to wrist-sized willow saplings (supplied by Pescadero Farm) were assembled in a process not unlike the one described by the artist about a previous work:

The first phase is to harvest some bigger saplings which I put firmly into the ground to serve as a structural base. Next I imagine my sticks as lines with which to draw, and I pull piles of young saplings through these structural supports. This builds up a beautiful surface which looks much like a line drawing on a sheet of paper. Finally I “erase” or hide the blemishes with flourishes of very small sticks.

Actually, beyond the artist these large pieces require a small crew (often local volunteers) to execute. SFAC first presented Dougherty with a bunker-style building on Chrissy Field. The artist saw too many serious logistical problems with that site, and the project relocated to Alioto Piazza. Actually, the city may have benefited from the move. In 2006, Dougherty executed an ambitious and fanciful facade for the Max Azria boutique in LA. It’s difficult to imagine topping that in another venue, so perhaps San Francisco ended up with a really special Dougherty. Additionally, a striking and unusual “conversation piece” is good news for the underutilized Alioto Piazza.


Upper Crust evokes natural objects—bird nests, hay stacks, cocoons, and beehives. But it also reminds us of man-made objects including unruly baskets, gnome hats, African huts, Hobbit houses, crone cottages, and even the Marie Antoinette (or Marge Simpson for that matter) coif. It cannot be coincidence that so many of the associations in Dougherty’s artwork hark back to childhood, as this is when the artist discovered his muse material: “Picking up a stick back then {i.e. in his childhood} and bending it seemed to give me big ideas, and I was able to capitalize on those childhood urges from long ago.”

Dougherty began his career making pedestal-size sculptures from sticks but his work quickly evolved to monumental scale. In part because they both fashion wood into natural forms, there will be the inevitable comparison of Dougherty to Andy Goldsworthy.  It would seem that wood is the only point on which the two converge. First, Goldsworthy works with a broad array of materials, while Dougherty works only with wood saplings. Further, Goldsworthy’s site works are all about impermanence. Even with his longer lasting structures—Spire in the Presidio or Stone River for example—the point is still the gradual decay (disappearance) of the piece, albeit centuries for certain materials.

Dougherty’s work is paradoxical. On the one hand, Upper Crust, like the shelter structures it conjures up, is a deliberate and methodical construction. On the other hand, it’s dynamic, all about movement.  A frenetic energy courses through Upper Crust. It’s as if a tornado had whisked through the allée, whipping the tree branches into disheveled peaks.  In this chaotic state, the work exudes agitation.

As a site-specific piece made from natural materials, Upper Crust is a unique in the world of public artwork.  It enlivens and invigorates what is for all intent an invisible public space.  One hopes that citizens will pause a few moments from their normal rush through (or around) Alioto Piazza to contemplate Dougherty’s work. . .  allow their imaginations, like those absent birds, to take flight.


Upper Crust is one of a series of artworks in SFAC’s ongoing program for the plaza. The artwork will be in situ until November 2009.

Patrick Dougherty will talk about the work on Monday, February 23rd at 6:30 PM to 8:00 PM in City Hall (public welcome).

Wider Connections

Patrick Dougherty’s website

More Dougherty images

Out of the Cellar (video), Brittany

Arrival of materials truck

Manolo Valdés at Alioto Piazza

Venetian Red on Andy Goldsworthy

Childhood Dreams, the process of constructing a Patrick Dougherty

San Francisco Arts Commission

12 Responses to “San Francisco’s Upper Crust”

  1. After the posting deadline I had an email from Patrick Dougherty elaborating on some questions I had asked him. Following is a bit of our question and response.

    VR: Did you pick the site? What about the site suggested this particular piece?

    PD: I did pick the site and thought the army of trees in front of the civic center would be such a provocative foil for one of my sapling sculptures. I imagined a series of forceful swirls and steeples built into a portion of the English plane trees which festoon the plaza. As the project developed, i decided to use one hundred feet of treeline and build six large elements in the upper reaches of the trees. The sculpture is scheduled to remain until November and its placement 10′ above street level should help with its longevity and allow it to co exit with all the festivals, exercise classes and other activities which take place under these trees. For me, saplings are not only the material of nests but they are lines with which to draw, and I use all the traditional drawing conventions to enliven the surface of the work. But instead of a pencil, I use a kind of full body motion. I make 8 to 10 works a year. . .

    VR: Was there anything in particular you were thinking about when you designed Upper Crust?

    PD: I think of a good sculpture is one that elicits many personal associations and I hear more than my share of stories about nest, trees, and childhood play. Overall there seems to be in the ranks of viewers a general longing to stay connected to the natural world. Sticks are one of man kinds earliest building materials and our hunting and gathering past seems to linger in all of us. Kids and dogs are not the only ones that gather sticks, I meet many adults with sticks in their closets. I invite people to drop by and see the work.

  2. You are really on a roll – this is another great post. I guess I’ve always been to shy to actually ask artists questions about their work and process but now I’m inspired to do that (when possible).

  3. I’ve been inspired by Patrick’s work for years; recently I had the good fortune to spend a week-long intensive artists workshop studying his techniques and process at the North Country Studio Workshops in Bennington, VT…I’ve been so delighted to see him working here in SF…

  4. Very nice photos. And glad to know the piece has a name, “Upper Crust.”

  5. I hate to be contrary or abusive, but if nobody else is going to say it, I’m going to say that this installation is simply BAD ART. It’s just plain STUPID.

    Reminds me of a grade school craft project — only I think a fourth grader could have come up with something a bit more imaginative than weaving a jumble of branches on top of some already tortured trees. I hope the installation is removed SOON. It is a travesty!

    And yes, those poor sycamores — it would be refreshing if the City could just let them grow tall and broad, instead of trimming them back to lifeless nubs each year. But of course, we can’t have “real” sycamore trees in San Francisco — I suppose they would take up too much space…

    I guess I just don’t get it… But maybe I do — I think the San Francisco Arts Commission is trying to pull a fast one on us. It’s just a jumble of trimmings that should have been mulched.

    Wake up, art lovers — use your OWN judgement of what is good art and what isn’t. This “installation” absolutely STINKS.

  6. Donald,
    Every good discussion needs a dissenter (or two), so appreciate your addition to the post. I don’t know exactly where to start with my rebuttal to your comments, so let me make the easiest point and go from there—

    1. Those sycamores are “pollarded.” Pollarding is a traditional and acceptable form of tree management (very common in Europe BTW). Among other things, it actually promotes quick shoot growth, so while they may look “tortured,” the process of pollarding is actually not detrimental to the tree. In fact, pollarded trees do live to an old age. Further, I’m no tree expert, but I understand the general problem with sycamores in an urban environment is that unchecked they grow to a massive size, topping out at 70-90 feet, extremely difficult to manage. Still they are lovely shade trees and an urban tradition. I’d rather have them pollarded during the winter than not have them at all.

    2. Grade school project/BAD ART—you may also believe that any kid can paint like Picasso, in which case none of the following points will persuade you. (Actually Picasso may have made the best point of all when he claimed it took him a lifetime to learn to draw like a child. . .) As far as the Dougherty piece goes, I genuinely believe it’s more sophisticated in theme and technique than you give it credit for. The braiding/weaving of the saplings is Dougherty’s way of “drawing” a form in three dimensional space. His forms are generally quite whimsical and speak to childhood memories, among other things. Just because he uses trees instead of pencils (but hey interesting connection that I hadn’t thought about), doesn’t mean his work isn’t art. But since you didn’t say it wasn’t art, just termed it BAD ART, here are some of my thoughts on that complex issue:

    With respect to bad art, I suspect too many people rely on something similar to Justice’s Potter Stewart’s infamous 1964 definition of pornography—i.e. “I know it when I see it.” True perhaps, but not a workable distinction for a community interested in showing and consuming art on a regular basis. Still let’s recognize that everyone is entitled to their own personal opinion about art.

    Can we, or should we even, agree on hard and fast definitions of good and bad art? For example, could we all agree that child-like art is bad? No! I go back to Picasso as the example, whose “child-like” art was the result of years and years of looking at and exquisitely rendering form, over time reducing it to its essence. He couldn’t have reduced to the simple without being incredibly well-disciplined in the complex.

    Perhaps it’s just as well that we can’t reach consensus. Tastes, like language, drift. How else to explain why the Impressionists, when they first showed in public, were battered by the French Academy as being bad painters, but whose paintings now fetch tens of millions of dollars at auction? Was Baroque artist Caravaggio a worse painter before he was “rediscovered” as a great artist by scholars and collectors in the 20th century? And, on the opposite end of the spectrum, the de Young Museum’s exhibition last year of glass blower Dale Chihuly’s work only pointed out (to me anyway) that Museums aren’t necessarily the arbiters of “good” art.

    I struggle when I don’t “like” a piece to understand is it because a. I don’t know enough about the context in which it was created; b. don’t like the subject matter, c. can’t see the nuances or d. it really is dreck?

    Personally the only thing I can be sure of is that BAD ART doesn’t inspire me to think. So the very fact that you thought about Dougherty’s piece long enough to get steaming mad (the caps were my clue), says to me at least it isn’t bad art.

  7. Thanks Liz for your reply — I really appreciate your taking the time…

    Yes, of course I know about “pollarding” (pruning is a more familiar term to me) and that it doesn’t hurt the trees and may even be beneficial — but you know, they “geld” horses too — hey, ask the horse how he feels about that!

    Since making my comment I have boned-up on Dougherty a bit and can see how he uses sticks as he might a brush. Actually I rather like some of his more formal pieces — and like less the ones that look like birdhouses. But in my review of his work I noticed that ALL of his pieces were sitting on the ground. I now realize that I object so strongly to the installation in the Çivic Center because he has his pieces all perched on top of those sycamore trees. Oh, I guess he is making use of the particular location, but to me it just looks contrived and unbalanced. I’m sure the first thing that went through his head regarding the location was — “well I certainly can’t put them on the ground — the homeless will end up living in them” (which personally, I think is a pretty good idea)…

    But looking at Dougherty’s resume and places where he has exhibited, I probably shouldn’t question his authenticity as an artist, but neverless stll regard it as a giant “craft project”. When I look at them I see birdhouses — not that I don’t like birdhouses, it’s just something that needs to be left to the birds!

    I still stand by my statement of “something that a fourth grader would do, only with more imagination”. I do not mean to disrespect the art of children. When visiting our county fair I always head straight for the kid’s art first — then kind of reluctantly stop by to see what the adults have come up with. For me, the kids art is much more meaningful than the silly games the adults play… Picasso realized this, as you pointed out.

    This really should’t be abut me, but a bit of background here — I am a pretty good photographer, but I have never considered even my finest work to be art. In fact I tend to get a little annoyed when someone infers that one of my photos is a work of art. I have spent my entire life surrounded by artists, with the last 16 (before retirement) working in an art supply and framing store. Believe me when I say I’ve seen a lot of crap represented as art…

    Finally, your comment about Dale Chihuly definitely shows that we are on opposite ends of the spectrum. You probably wouldn’t be interested, but if anyone else is I have a photo set of his work from the deYoung exhibit on what I call my “big” site at:

    So, thanks again Liz for your response. It was enlightening. I just think we should not always blindly accept everything that some silly art commission brands as “good art”. Now, where’s my “question authority” bumper sticker?

  8. Donald,
    I enjoy a meaty discussion that challenges me to articulate and challenge my beliefs. So appreciate your willingness to go one step farther. I guess our discussion begs the question: What constitutes ART?, a big hairy topic that has been percolating in my mind for a number of months. Maybe it’s time to collect my thoughts in earnest and throw them out for public discussion.

    I’m interested that you don’t consider your photographs art. (I went to your site.) Do you have a specific reason?

    And finally, re: Chihuly—I did actually go see the show, to see his work ensemble and make up my own mind whether it’s good “art.” Unlike many others, I don’t necessarily think of Chihuly in the craft category; in fact I don’t differentiate much between art and craft at all, since a lot of “craft” pieces step over the line to “fine art,” and in many cases actually embody bigger ideas than some “fine art.” And I too have an upload of all the pictures I took at the Chihuly show. I was seduced by the beautiful colors and shapes. Alas, I realized it was just superficial beauty. In the end, I could find nothing intellectually or rigorously emotional about the work. And that depth of communication is what creates for me the lasting connection to a piece of art. Ah, but I’m getting ahead of myself on the topic of “What constitutes art?”. . . Stay tuned.

  9. Hi Liz,

    Thank you SO much for your interesting comments — this has been educational for me and has managed to get me thinking — not an easy task at my age…

    The way I distinguish art from craft is that craft has utility, but art has no purpose other than to inspire, delight, or feed the mind. And a guy like Dale Chihuly does all of those things for me — I certainly wouldn’t put salad in one of his bowls…

    And thanks for asking why I don’t consider my photography to be art or myself to be an artist. It’s purely because being a photographer is quite enough — and it’s challenging enough producing a technically good photographic print without putting the extra burden of “art” on it…

    Reminds me that Ansel Adams (who I met a few times when I was a kid) never called himself an artist, or even photographic artist — although a lot of other people have labeled him as such. I think he considered photography as something on such a high level that it did not need to stoop down to the art-world for support. My all time hero was Edward Weston — someone wrote a catalog for an exhibit of his photographs and gave him the title of: “Edward Weston, photographic artist” — to which he fired off an angry reply that “Edward Weston, photographer” would be completely sufficient.

    As for my photography, it’s a continual learning experience, but I work very hard at it because I realize that there are SO many other photographers out there that are MUCH better than me. But my goal is always to do “artistic like” work — you know, artistic lighting, artistic compositions, artistic choice of subject matter, etc… It’s always a delight when I am making a photograph and realize that the result is kind of artistic — but I that’s where it stops — I never consider it art. From all the “bad art” I’m seeing these days I often I think photography is a few steps above art (hows that for a snobbish attitutude?)…

    Hey — ask Michael Tilson Thomas what he makes, and I’m pretty sure he would say he makes music, not art.

    Like I mentioned in a previous comment, I worked in an art supply and framing store for 16 years and I’ve got to tell you that the stuff that came in the door may have been art, but 90% of it was bad-art. I considered it bad art when it didn’t do anything for me. I may tend to take some things too seriously, but some of the stuff that our frame shop framed made my blood boil. In many cases people were just buying or producing art that would go well with their furnishings and walls.

    Anyway, I’m starting to ramble, so I’ll close. Thanks for letting me spill my guts.

  10. This is a very fun discussion. Hearts and hands, art and craft, what stimulates our imaginations, what grabs our interest. I like the birds’ nest feel of the bramble-swirls. I like the hobbity feel of these “Upper Crust” installations. And also I agree that the pollarding of those trees, any trees, is like gelding horses. I would prefer the big uncut sycamores– which would sweep the whole city with crunchy, messy leaves, in the fall, and be almost impossible to clean up. I love Picasso, and the dishes he made, which were whimsical and fun crockery, which could be for everyday use. I was a 14 year old child when I saw the studio, and realized that it was ok to play with whatever medium one had handy. I grew up on a beach, and used to make a lot of sand castles, and I have a lot of architectural sensitivity about using rooms and space, maybe partly due to that long summer activity! When I saw the first photo, I thought of the coracles the Irish monks used to float out to sea on. Whirling in the water, maybe you would get to Scotland, and maybe not. Not very linear, really radically non-linear. Play, and whimsy, and taking a chance, and letting oneself go without a goal. Making a sort of deer-hollow in a bunch of trees. The good thing was that it was high enough off the ground so we can do functional things underneath, and look up, and see the sky through the tangles. And I personally like that it covered up the arthritic knuckles of the poor naked pollarded trees in the winter. Like chickens with their heads cut off. Ramble and bramble, and mess, and not very organized and city-proper. Childlike, indeed.

    • For me Dougherty’s piece also released a dormant childhood memory, mine of “blanket forts”—blankets draped over chairs to provide cozy hideaways during our summer days off from school. (Nowadays we call them “tent cities,” but that’s another matter.) In the shadow of the brambles (great description) I found a moment (or two) of joy in the “permission” to be a kid again. And for that, I thank him.

  11. This artist is amazing… I found great pictures of Patrick Dougherty creations in Art Days, here is the link! Enjoy! :)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: