Patrick Dougherty: Monk’s Cradle (Lean on Me) in Minnesota

(Last Updated On: April 12, 2020)

Sculptor Patrick Dougherty created Monk’s Cradle (also known as Lean on Me) for Saint John’s University and Abbey in Collegeville, Minnesota, in 2012. It was removed in 2016.

informal structures built from sticks

Architectural sculpture by Patrick Dougherty

Sculptor Patrick Dougherty has built a long career constructing whimsical forms he calls stickworks from saplings. A form of environmental art, the structures are created entirely from woven sapling trees. They resemble over-sized nests or woven buildings, and all are large enough for visitors to walk in or through.

stick structures with a person inside

Chapels from sticks

Dougherty created the structure he called Monk’s Cradle (Lean on Me) at Saint John’s University and Abbey in September 2012.

Inspired by the lakeside Stella Maris Chapel, he designed a cluster of five small stickwork chapels, complete with vaulted ceilings and rose windows, and a small central courtyard.

Although officially named Monk’s Cradle, the community knows it as Lean on Me. That comes from the way Dougherty designed the group of small structures to lean toward each other.

informal structures built from sticks

He explained:

There’s a bit of community here, and people kind of lean into each other. So, these little chapelettes are personalities – they lean into each other.”

Like all of his projects, Dougherty used locally harvested saplings, both willow and ironwood. They were all cut from Saint John’s arboretum. Doing so both provided wood for the project and cleared unwanted brush from the landscape.

He was assisted by about 300 volunteers, including students from the College of Saint Benedict, Saint John’s University, and Saint John’s Preparatory School. They cut the saplings and helped build the structure over the course of three weeks

Monk’s Cradle (Lean on Me) was constructed entirely from woven sapling sticks. Fifteen tons of sticks. No nails were used. Even twine that held the structure’s off-kilter shape as construction began was removed once enough sticks were woven into it to hold it in place.

While clearly inspired by religious architecture, the structure’s woven saplings and windblown look give the sense of entering a church formed not only from natural elements, but by nature itself.

 KSMQ Public Television has a very good video that discusses (and shows) the construction of Monk’s Cradle.

A temporary form of architecture

These environmental sculptures aren’t intended to last.

Monk’s Cradle (Lean on Me) was expected to stand for two years. But the university agreed to leave it standing as long as it remained stable. That allowed visitors over three years to explore the woven chapels and contemplate the impermanence of all things.

After becoming unstable, it was burned in January 2016.

The slight rise where it was once just visible from the highway seems especially empty now.

Visiting Monk’s Cradle (Lean on Me) in 2015

Despite regular travel to central Minnesota and seeing photos of Lean on Me taken by all my friends, I was slow to get there myself. Almost too slow, as the structure was originally slated for demolition a few months before my visit.

Not that I hadn’t seen it before. For a moment, from a distance.

Lean on Me (as it is known locally) sits on a slight rise in a bit of prairie not far off I-94. If you look at just the right moment, you glimpse a cluster of odd-looking structures off in the distance.

Structures might be too strong a word as, from that distance, it’s hard to guess what these misshapen forms are – dead trees, old hay bales, crumbling buildings? They catch the eye because they seem to both blend into and stand out from the rolling fields and prairies around them. They appear both organic and man-made.

If you exit the freeway on County Road 159 and follow the road south just a bit, you’ll soon come upon them. Although it still may not be clear what, exactly, it is you are looking at.

But it will soon become clear that they only look is if constructed by the wind blowing across the prairie. Human hands built these, weaving the natural materials together to create a cluster of individual structures (nests?) that huddle together against the prairie wind.

informal structures built from sticks

Let your imagination run free as you wander through each structure and you will discover soaring domes, rose windows, arches . . . the architectural elements of a Christian chapel rendered in twigs and branches.

If you are quiet when you enter, you might discover another world.

While this work is usually referred to as Lean on Me, Dougherty calls it Monk’s Cradle. Both names are apt.

Despite their openness, the sticks mute the light entering the chapels. Perhaps they mute our sense too, as the outside world easily falls away. It is as if you have entered a protected place that straddles the worlds of nature, God, and humans. A place out of time, an ancient world where shadowy figures in simple cloaks contemplate the word of God and what it means to live in community, to live in a place where spirit and community are quietly grow.

Additional information on Dougherty’s stickwork

Patrick Dougherty’s website has biographical information, featured work, and more – including a list of upcoming projects and links to stories and videos about recent projects.

A 2012 interview on the OEN website delves into Dougherty’s background, process, and philosophy.

Where to see Dougherty’s work

Patrick Dougherty usually creates 10 pieces each year, and each usually lasts for a year or two.

In the first few months of 2020 he created pieces in Alabama, North Carolina, and Florida.

2019 projects include projects at the US Botanic Garden in Washington DC, the Denver Botanic Garden, the Morris Arboretum at the University of Pennsylvania, and the Minnesota Landscape Arboretum. All of these pieces should still be on display

The Landscape Arboretum’s structure, called You Betcha, was constructed in May 2019.

multi-towered stickwork structure at sunset

In 2020 Dougherty has projects planned for Montana, Martha’s Vineyard, North Carolina, and South Carolina.

chapel-like stickwork structure with text "Lean on Me"


Check the list of recent work on his website to get an idea of what might still be standing.


If you like the photos you see here, check for high quality art images.

The Saint John’s Bible

All Minnesota posts 

informal structures built from sticks

4 thoughts on “Patrick Dougherty: Monk’s Cradle (Lean on Me) in Minnesota”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Skip to content