Janet Echelman has been redefining public sculpture for 20 years. Her soaring, rippling sculptures — scaled to big city buildings — are made with braided fiber and projected light.
A soft, voluminous net sculpture that Echelman installed in the Grand Salon at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery in 2015 was a huge hit, transforming idly curious viewers into dreamy-eyed mystics. The same year, she suspended a vast, undulating, three-dimensional network between office towers over Boston’s Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway.
Echelman sculptures — some permanent, others temporary — have been installed at dozens of locations around the world, including Oxford Circus in London, Plaza Mayor in Madrid, Dubai, Shanghai and Sydney.
It all started during a spell in India on a Fulbright scholarship, when Echelman was inspired by fishing nets on the beach. In a TED talk that has been translated into 35 languages, she explained how, having been rejected by seven art schools, she went from collaborating with Indian fishermen and Lithuanian lace-makers to suspending intricately engineered sculptures above some of the world’s most famous public spaces, where they billow with the wind and change color at night.
Echelman, who works with engineers and architects, has a small but intensely busy studio beside her home in Brookline, Mass. Assistants sit at computers lining the walls, which are covered with images, diagrams and quotations. A rudimentary model of a streetscape in Bonn, Germany — the setting for a major new work marking the 250th anniversary of Beethoven’s birth — covers one table. More than a dozen gorgeous woven experiments are suspended above head height, beneath a skylight.
Echelman, 53, spoke with us recently as she was making the final adjustments on a work commissioned by the Peninsula Hotel for the opening of Art Basel Hong Kong, on view there until June 21.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Q: What is your daily routine like?
A: When I first wake up is when I have my best ideas. I jot notes before I get out of bed. I make the kids breakfast, we get them off to school and my husband and I enjoy a quiet coffee. I love having a partner with a long, shared set of experiences, whose professional life is unrelated to art. I need someone I trust who can say, “That’s not your best,” and I can respond, “You’re right, I’ll scrap it.” I also lift weights three mornings a week, which keeps me sane.
Q: Your work is so ambitious, and requires you to deal with so many practical considerations and logistical challenges. How do you keep that separate from, but also integrated into, your creative thinking about the actual design?
A: Yeah, it’s hard to remain unperturbed. Working in the public realm forces me to fight for what’s essential in my art, amidst endless practical constraints. The payoff is art that can impact a place and daily life. That’s worth the trade-off of absolute control I have with purely studio art. I’m trying to bring a sense of wonder and delight to the city, and even — the word no one wants to use in art . . .
A: [laughs] That’s right!
Q: What are you working on now?
A: I’m making a new sculpture for my Earthtime series. It’s about seemingly fixed elements of our lives, like the length of the day, that have been shifted by unseen events too large or complex to comprehend. It’s about interconnectedness. This newest one is called “Earthtime 1.26.” It’s a sculpture made entirely of soft materials, so it billows with the wind.
Q: Where will it be?
A: Swooping down on a busy street in one of the densest cities in the world — Hong Kong. My sculpture attaches to the facade of the historic Peninsula Hotel. It’s nicknamed “the Grande Dame of the East.” It’s all classical ornamentation and formality, and suddenly there will be this thing with blazing color and slashing straight lines, and the two [the sculpture and the building] will begin to dance.
Q: Tell me more.
A: I want it to make people feel more alive. But there are practical challenges of what will work structurally, and what you are allowed to touch, because it’s a historically significant site. The sculpture swoops more than a hundred feet toward the street. This creates a holding space for the tensioned structural layer, which supports the layers of billowing lacework. And then the soft, translucent layers are allowed to move. Wind becomes the choreographer.
Q: How much wind is likely in Hong Kong?
A: We’re near the water, and gusts can exceed 68 miles per hour in a storm. My sculptures are tensioned to withstand hurricanes and typhoons. In Hong Kong, we design for typhoons, and in Seattle, we designed for a half-inch of ice, which is infrequent. But I always design for the 100-year event, the worst possible storm. We meet the same building codes as skyscrapers, but we use the time-honored craft of sailing, ropes and knots to do it.
“But I always design for the 100-year event, the worst possible storm. We meet the same building codes as skyscrapers, but we use the time-honored craft of sailing, ropes and knots to do it.”
Q: When you're in your studio, playing with all these shapes with ephemeral qualities, what makes you know one shape is working and another maybe isn't?
A: I work until I feel a spark, an energy, in balance. And it takes refinement. I might sketch 25 versions of an idea until it stops being an object to look at and becomes someplace I want to get lost in.
Q: Literally sketched up, in drawings?
A: Yes, pen and watercolor drawings, but also digital, three-dimensional models in the computer, so I can see its proportions within the site. The details of my forms are often inspired by scientific data sets, the concrete truths of physics and microbiology. We know the atoms are there . . .
Q: Yet we can't point at it.
A: Right. But it needs to read as concrete and abstract simultaneously. The data sets make you wonder about something, and the abstraction is the container — why it’s relevant.
Q: So you're going through these iterations on the computer . . .
A: Yes, my studio has two full-time architects who model the drape with gravity using our custom software. I look at the layering and transparency and the surprise of how it reveals itself as you move around it. I see it as a human relationship. I’m always asking, “Is this a relationship that’s always revealing something new, one you want to spend time with?”
Q: How much of all this can you get a sense of from the computer models?
A: We also make physical models, with string and wire, foam and wood. Different models serve different purposes. At the concept stage, physical models and hand sketches are better. I make a simple sketch, maybe two forms pressing against one another, where color from one flows into the other. The digital model is where we figure out how this idea takes form in a building or public space.
Q: What happens after the modeling?
A: So there’s the moment when it’s right, when it breathes with life! And then the crafting begins. It’s a different joy — a calm, meditative pleasure in crafting the details. Which patterns and colors . . . And then we braid them into twine, which is then loomed into panels, which are hand-trimmed and hand-knotted, then attached to ropes which are hand-spliced. The craft is extensive.
Q: Where is this happening?
A: All across the U.S. We design in Boston, develop our custom software in San Francisco, do our structural and aeronautical engineering in New York, San Francisco and Seattle, and fabricate in Puget Sound.
Q: Why there?
A: Because it’s a historic fishing industry, with braiders and net-makers down the street from each other. I’ve been working with the same families for 17 years — the looming factory is owned by the brother-in-law of the braiding factory.
Q: You seem to enjoy collaborating.
A: I started my life as an artist collaborating with batik artisans and master calligraphers, and now I’m collaborating with structural engineers and material scientists. I love the wisdom in a craft. And I love learning.