Stumbled Upon Dougherty’s Stickwork Project in Salem, MA: Reminiscent of the haunting stories of witch trials

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Travel

On a routine trip to Boston to visit family and reconnect with my northern roots, my family and I took a day trip to Salem, MA. Not really going with any particular agenda in mind, we walked the historic town and stumbled upon Patrick Dougherty’s Stickwork project, What the Birds Know, commissioned by Peabody Essex Museum.

The sculpture stretches across the radius of the Washington/Essex intersection in front of the Crowninshield Bentley House. The work, inspired by the gabled, shingled homes of Colonial-style architecture, has a haunting feel as the structures tilt and sway organically in multiple directions as if moving in the wind. These ghost-like forms include large circular openings that mimic howling or screaming (think Edvard Munch’s The Scream), another “spooky” visual element that hints at Salem’s infamous witch trials and the ghost stories that remain.

Although I’m uncertain about Dougherty’s intent to create haunting forms in this work, the installation unquestionably feels at home in this place.

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The backside (not shown above but can be viewed here) mimics the European Turret, typically made of stone, found in Europe and the UK (think Medieval Castle towers). The juxtaposition of the different architectural styles represents the transition from the Old World to the New (Dougherty, 2015).

Later during our walk, prior to leaving for the afternoon, we made a special trip to the Salem Witch trials memorial, an incredibly moving site if you have not been there before. I have visited a few times and each time, I leave truly solemn and in deep reflection. Perhaps because the memorial reflects the persecution of a group of people who were different from the norm of society, living in a world driven by fear in a system that would not protect them (The Salem Award Foundation, 1992) — a story that unfortunately is not new or estranged in our history, nor extinct in our present.

Below is one of the twenty stone “benches” in the memorial. Each victim’s name is carved in all caps, old-style lettering – a simple, beautiful and direct solution to honor those that lost their lives unjustly. One stone bench is dedicated to each victim.

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The memorial is realized primarily through stone and typography. The stones representing people, both the accused and the silent spectators, and the typography representing the protests of the victims.

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