A wall in Echelman's studio is covered in various fabrics, color samples, printouts of computer designs, photographs and technical diagrams. (Bruce Petschek/Charles River Media Group)

In the studio with Janet Echelman

The artist transforms public spaces with rippling, soaring sculptures

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.

Janet Echelman paints in her studio at her home in Brookline, Mass. (Bruce Petschek/Charles River Media Group)

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.

Echelman conceptualizes her sculptures on paper, using pens and watercolors. She uses digital, 3-D models on the computer to refine how her works act in space and interact with the site. She says, “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.” (Bruce Petschek/Charles River Media Group)

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 . . .

Q: Beauty?

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.

Previous works

Echelman’s “1.8 London” is suspended in 2016 above Oxford Circus, London’s busiest intersection. The lightweight installation was designed to travel and has since been exhibited in California, Mexico and throughout China. (Ema Peter/Studio Echelman)

Visitors to the Smithsonian American Art Museum in Washington view Echelman’s “1.8 Renwick” in 2016. The installation transformed the Renwick Gallery’s historic Grand Salon into an immersive art experience and has since been added to the museum’s permanent collection. (Brendan Smialowski/ AFP/Getty Images)

“As If It Were Already Here,” shown in 2015 in Boston, was constructed with more than 100 miles of twine. The work was suspended over the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. (Melissa Henry/Studio Echelman)

A man photographs “1.78 Madrid” last year at Plaza Mayor in downtown Madrid. The city celebrated the 400th anniversary of the square in 2018. The work explores the complex connections of the physical world. (Francisco Seco/AP)

“Pulse” (2018), exhibited in Philadelphia’s Dilworth Park, traced the paths of subway trains above ground in real time. Echelman used mist and light as her art materials. (Jeff Fusco/Studio Echelman)

“Her Secret Is Patience” was commissioned for the city of Phoenix in 2010. The 145-foot-tall sculpture has been credited with helping revitalize the downtown area. Its shape is meant to reflect the state’s cumulus clouds. (Jill Richards/Studio Echelman)

Echelman’s “1.26” was installed in 2014 over Marina Bay Sands in Singapore for the biennial iLight Festival. Singapore was its fourth continental premiere. It was commissioned in the United States, before being exhibited in Australia and Europe. (Wong Maye-E/AP)

“Skies Painted With Unnumbered Sparks” (2014) in Canada. The largest pre-stressed-rope structure in the world, Echelman’s sculpture for the Vancouver waterfront spanned 745 feet, stretching from the top of a skyscraper to the Vancouver Convention Center. (Ema Peter/Studio Echelman)

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.”

Janet Echelman

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.

A variety of colored fibers hang on a wall in Echelman’s studio. She was inspired by watching fishermen in India bundling their nets into mounds on the beach. She now works with high-tech, flame-resistant, superstrong synthetic fibers, collaborating with structural and aeronautical engineering firms as well as braiding and looming factories to merge ancient craft traditions with the latest computer design capabilities. (Bruce Petschek/Charles River Media Group)

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.

Echelman surrounded by her sculpture material. In her finished works, the bright colors of the fibers are enhanced at night by projected light, which adds to their subtle movements as they react to air currents. (Bruce Petschek/Charles River Media Group)

Sebastian Smee

Sebastian Smee is a Pulitzer Prize-winning art critic at The Washington Post and the author of “The Art of Rivalry: Four Friendships, Betrayals and Breakthroughs in Modern Art." He has worked at the Boston Globe, and in London and Sydney for the Daily Telegraph (U.K.), the Guardian, the Spectator, and the Sydney Morning Herald.