Brain Pickings

Stickwork: Patrick Dougherty’s Remarkable Tree Sculptures


Sculptor Patrick Dougherty has an unusual medium: Trees. Yet he isn’t a traditional wood scuplptor, carving shapes into rigid trunks and branches. Rather, he weaves twigs into remarkable fluid shapes that exude the whimsy and lyricism of a Scandinavian fairy tale, blending it with architectural aesthetics and a profound respect for nature.

Stickwork is a magnificent monograph of Dougherty’s best work from the past 25 years, featuring 38 of his most stunning structures captured in lavish photographs, alongside drawings documenting his construction process and fascinating anecdotes about each site’s particularities and challenges.

Close Ties

Brahan Estate, Dingwall, Scottish Highlands, 2006 | Photographer: Fin Macrae

Paradise Gate

Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, MA, 2001 | Photographer: Stephen Petegorsky

Cell Division

Savannah College of Art, Savannah, Georgia, 1998 | Photographer: Wayne Moore

Stand By

Raleigh-Durham Airport Authority, Raleigh, NC, 2000 | Photographer: Jerry Blow

Call of the Wind

Museum of Glass, Tacoma, WA, 2002 | Photographer: Duncan Price

Childood Dreams

Desert Botanical Garden, Phoenix, Arizona, 2007 | Photographer: Adam Rodriguez

Hovering between landscape design, architecture, art and a living manifesto for our connection with the Earth, Dougherty’s is an uncommon talent and rare conceptual vision, captured beautifully and hauntingly in Stickwork.

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Democratizing Art History: 6 smARThistory Primers


From the Byzantine empire to Rembrandt, or what web video has to do with democratizing art.

Traditionally, the study of art history has belonged to the privileged. Tuition-rich courses, overpriced textbooks, trips to museums (often across vast oceans) — they all cost a pretty penny. Nowadays, the field is gradually being democratized. During the past few years alone, MoMA has made a trove of Abstract Expressionist art available on the iPad; the Getty Museum lets users view art online in 3D with the help of Augmented Reality technology; and we can now take a virtual tour through Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel, or gaze at essential Renaissance paintings hanging in the famous Uffizi Galleryin Florence — all for free.

smARThistory is perhaps the most centralized effort to make art history an accessible field. Developed by MoMA Director of Digital Learning Beth Harris and Steven Zucker, Pratt Institute chair of History of Art and Design, the portal now offers 115 videos presenting unscripted conversations between art historians about the history of art. (Find them all on Vimeo right here.) The easiest way to understand the project is to experience it, so we have curated a sampler of six videos, covering iconic art from antiquity to modernity.


Rosetta Stone, c. 196 B.C.E., granite, 114.4 cm x 72.3 x 27.9 cm or 45 x 28.5 x 11 in. (British Museum, London)

The story of [the Rosetta Stone] is historically incredibly important. It allowed us for the first time to be able to read, to be able to understand, to be able to translate hieroglyphics. […] The Rosetta Stone is what helped [linguistic historians] understand that Egyptian hieroglyphics are not pictorial, they’re not pictograms but actually phonetics — so all those things that look like pictures actually represent sounds.”


Byzantine, Icon of the Triumph of Orthodoxy, c. 1400-1450, tempera and gold on wood, 39 cm x 31 cm (British Museum, London)

The gold is the spiritual, it’s the heaven, it’s what you’re not supposed to represent.”


Bernini, Apollo and Daphne, 1622-25 (Galleria Borghese, Rome)

This is all about not attaining beauty, almost having the thing that you want in your hands and having it slip out at the very moment when you attain it. […] It’s a meditation on what sculpture is. Bernini, more than anyone else, makes marble seem like the wings of an angel, a cloud.”


Rembrandt, A Girl at a Window, 1645, 81.6 x 61 cm (Dulwich Picture Gallery, London)

To Rembrandt’s credit, he really does make you psychologically interested in her.”


Salvador Dali, Metamorphosis of Narcissus, 1937 (Tate Modern)

[The surrealists] called the ability of Dali to do this, to see things simultaneously as more than one thing, as a result of a psychological state, which they called ‘paranoic critical activity.’ It was based on a willfulness reading of Freud. Freud talked about the filters that kept the unconscious and the conscious mind apart. But Dali claimed that in the state of ‘paranoic critical activity’ he could actually embrace both the unconscious and the conscious simultaneously, so that his conscious mind could actually do the painting.”


Jackson Pollock, One: Number 31, 1950.

When we think of Pollock’s drip paintings, we think quite rightfully of an improvisation, like a jazz musician going off on a riff.”

Dan Colman edits Open Culture, which brings you the best free educational media available on the web — free online courses, audio books, movies and more. By day, he directs the Continuing Studies Program at Stanford University, and you can also find him on Twitter.

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Why Can’t We Walk Straight?


For over 80 years, scientists have been trying to resolve a great mystery: Why can’t humans walk straight? Without a visible guidepoint like the sun or the moon or a mountain top in sight, we seem to go around in circles — quite literally. Here, NPR correspondent Robert Krulwich distills decades of inconclusive research, with the help of animator Benjamin Arthur.

There are countless experiments throughout history to test this curious quirk.

In 1920s, a young scientist asked a friend to walk across a field in a straight line, blindfolded. But here’s what the friend did:

In 1928, three men left a barn on a very foggy day and set out to walk to a point a mile away, straight ahead. Instead, this is how their journey went:

Also in 1928, a man was blindfolded, then asked to jump into a lake and swim straight to the other side. Here’s what he ended up doing:

When a man was asked to get in a car and drive straight across an empty Kansas field, he did the following:

There is, apparently, a profound inability in humans to stick to a straight line when blindfolded.” ~ Robert Krulwich

And while this particular mystery might not yet have an answer, on the subject of fascinating factoids from the folks at NPR, don’t forget the excellent All Facts Considered — an answers-laden compendium of curiosities from NPR’s endearing, librarianly librarian.

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TED Unbound: Behind the Scenes of a TED Talk


We’re longtime lovers of TED. (To an obsessive degree, some would argue.) Last year, we took a behind-the-scenes look at the incredible energy — physical, intellectual, emotional — that goes into the making of a TED talk. Today, from executive producer Jason Wishnow and filmmakers Josh Nussbaum and Todd Banhazl comes a rare look at the riveting, nerve-wrecking world of TED’s greatest asset — the speakers — as they hone that signature blend of world-changing genius and inspired humility that makes TED TED.

The thing is not to get self-conscious. It’s just like playing the piano. If you play the piano and suddenly start looking at your fingers… the music will stop.” ~ Sir Ken Robinson

Relive some of that magic with our live coverage of TED 2010, complete with photos and exclusive soundbites, and go deeper with these 7 must-read books by TED speakers.

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