Slithering Stick Work

Extreme gardening may best describe the latest addition to Bernheim Aboretum and Research Forest.

Standing 20 feet tall and 230 feet in circumference, new exhibit “Snake Hollow” has finally reached completion in front of the park’s Visitor Center.

The installation was created by internationally known artist Patrick Dougherty, who resides in North Carolina, and has lived a semi-nomadic life for the last 30 years, composing his famous “stick works” around the globe.

Since about 1980, he’s crafted more than two hundred massive stick sculptures in such places as France and Japan. Through private support and Bernheim Executive Director Dr. Mark K. Wourms, Dougherty traveled to Kentucky to serve as Bernheim’s  artist in residence from April 9 through 26 in order to build his unique exhibit.

"Snake Hollow."

"Snake Hollow." Photo by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune

“Part of it is just maybe a little bit of affinity for the materials because of childhood play and interest in seeing what I could do with it,” Dougherty said of his form of artwork. “I went back to school, and at a point I tried to become a sculptor. Just started developing sticks as a way of working and ultimately discovered things – people are really interested in this.”

Built of willow sapling in the course of just three weeks, Dougherty and a group of around 50 volunteers worked diligently to complete the project. Local professional and amateur artists, and those simply interested in the captivating sculpture, came out to Bernheim to contribute to the making of a masterpiece.

“It was amazing,” said JD Dotson, a local artist and owner of Regalo Gifts, who helped construct “Snake Hollow.” “I kept thinking, ‘How is he going to get this done?’ But, when you see it like its just incredible. … It looks so different from every angle and it makes you want to walk through, and it’s just amazing. Go see it. It’s one of those things that pictures do not do justice.”

Dougherty estimated that about six tons of willow sapling were used for the installation. Bernheim staff and volunteers hauled much of the material from a tall grass farm and an area off highway 65.

The process of building the exhibit began with a mapping of the form on the ground with rope. A total of 141 holes, 2’6” deep, were dug every three feet along the line. Next, 423 upright wrist-thick saplings were tamped in and manipulated into undulating walls, ceilings, doorways and windows. The final installation is approximately 846 running feet long and took more than 800 hours to finish.

As the piece evolved, Dougherty enlisted the input of volunteers to name the sculpture. “(Dougherty) decided ‘Snake Hollow’ would give it a sense of place,” said Martha Winans Slaughter, overseer of Bernheim’s Visual Arts Program. “The idea of doing the snakes came from a couple ideas: (Dougherty) researches the area he’s going to and the ancient Indian serpent monuments that are in southern Ohio were an influence. And, he had just come back from a site visit in Australia and there’s some aboriginal myths about snakes and serpents.”

"Snake Hollow."

"Snake Hollow."Â Photo by CHRIS HUMPHREYS | The Voice-Tribune

Since opening to the public, “Snake Hollow” has quickly attracted a crowd of both children and adults looking to roam through its many walls and passageways. The exhibit has also helped people connect to nature through art – a desire Bernheim founder Isaac Bernheim asked be fulfilled when he left his land to the people of Kentucky.

“This project really did bring a huge community aspect to it; even for the staff because everybody just pulled together,” said Susan Ritter. “(It was) just really, really cool. It was a time to focus on something really great together.”

“Snake Hollow” will only last about two years – as most of Dougherty’s outdoor pieces – due to erosion. Once it has crumbled, Bernheim will disassemble the installation and use it for mulch. But, Dougherty doesn’t mind the ephemerality of his work.

“In some ways it’s more exciting because you’re not worried about permanency, about changing the material,” he said. “I try to make something that’s really exciting that sits at site well, that’s large scale, that makes people want to stop and walk through it. If I do that, then I feel really successful.”

For more information on Bernheim Aboretum and Research Forest and “Snake Hollow,” visit For information on Patrick Dougherty, visit

Bernheim Forest is open every day 7 a.m. until near sunset. Admission to the park is free for members and free for all every weekday. Weekends and holidays have a $5 environmental impact fee per vehicle for non-members; $10 for a non-member passenger van or RV.

Bernheim is located at 2499 Kentucky 245 in Clermont, Ky.