Taking Imagination Seriously
Janet Echelman Visits SMOA

Janet Echelman reshapes urban airspace with monumental, fluidly moving sculptural forms constructed with highly sophisticated materials from woven fibers to atomized mist. Her contemplative floating netted sculptures are forever changing and make visible the slightest stirring of the atmosphere. We find ourselves engaged in an introspective experience, receptive to the emotional and visual impact of these magnificent blossoms. We watch with awe the sensuous beauty captured in delicate, intricately designed webs. Quiet thoughts subtly appear in our consciousness, generating ideas that alter our preconceived expectations of modern sculpture. Mesmerized by the sculpture’s motion, as it merges and expands, the appearance of the surrounding landscape is transformed. Space drifts away from its every day dimensions and time is tempted out of existence like a light beam. 

In the same way that people around the globe, who visit or live in the places where Janet’s works are present, we are influenced and changed by the powerful impact of these mystical and miraculous transient shapes. 

We accompany Janet on a fantasy flight, traversing the swell of the seas as storms rage, witness the turbulent stirring as the winds churn, sense the gentle tugging of the silent breeze, feel the caress of the passing fog or study the sharp stillness of the sun’s patterned shadows cast upon the ground. 

Janet’s artistic journey is a narrative in which fate and her responsive imagination joined forces to determine her destiny. As a recipient of a Fulbright Scholarship, she took up residency in India, with the promise to give painting exhibitions around the country. However, her painting supplies did not arrive. Fortunately, the town in which she was staying was famous for sculpture; so she decided to learn to work in bronze, with the guidance of local casters. 

She found the material too heavy and expensive for her Fulbright budget. While watching the local fisherman bundling their nets, she wondered if nets could be a new approach to sculpture, a method to create volumetric form without heavy, solid material. By the end of her Fulbright year, she had created a series of netted sculptures in collaboration with the fisherman. Hoisting them onto poles, she discovered that their delicate surfaces responded to every ripple of wind. 

Janet soon recognized that the small scale of her netted sculpture could neither be large enough nor permanent enough for her to realize the full potential of this newly invented medium. She needed fiber which could survive the natural elements yet retain the ephemeral and delicate characteristics of the nets. Seeking information and assistance from many people with wide ranging expertise, she developed the ability to translate the ancient craft of net making into industrially engineered, durable, sustainable and permanent sculptural installations. 

She continues to collaborate with highly skilled professionals including aeronautical and mechanical engineers, architects, lighting designers, landscape architects, and fabricators. Ideas are discussed, enhanced and then executed. Everyone is put to the test of pure invention and ingenuity.

Janet Echelman received her undergraduate degree from Harvard University, with Highest Honors in Visual & Environmental Studies and her MFA in Visual Art, from the Milton Avery Graduate School of the Arts, Bard College, NY. She has been granted many awards including; Artist Fellowship from the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation, 2011, Creative Arts Fellowship; Resident in Visual Arts, American Academy in Rome, 2010; Henry Crown Fellowship, The Aspen Institute, 2006-09, 1st Artist in Leadership Award Program; Lily Auchincloss Fellow, New York Foundation for the Arts, 2006 Category: Architecture & Environmental Structures; and the National Institute of Design, 1996-97 Fulbright Award, to name a few. 

Her public installations can be seen in countries around the world, some of which are; Australia, British Columbia, Canada, India, Portugal, Spain, the Netherlands, and major cities throughout the United States.


In The News...
from Sarasota Visual Art

Janet Echelman is an artist who works mainly with commissioned pieces. She approaches her work as a challenge or problem to be solved. She says that she will only accept an invitation to create work if she feels it can truly better herself, and the community that would interact with it. Her large outdoor sculptures “shape urban airspace, creating permanent, voluptuous, billowing forms, that are counterpoint to hard edged buildings in the urban environment.”

Echelman’s modest personality presents itself by way of her recollection of when a professor at Harvard had advised her not to pursue art. She claims that she was not what you would call a “talented artist.” Although later, she proudly admits that her first solo show was at the age of 23 and curated by none other than Robert Rauschenberg, who also bought three of her early paintings for his private collection.

Instead of attending graduate school, Echelman spent some years traveling throughout Asia and India on a Fulbright scholarship, which is where she first began working with netting. She was set to have a large painting exhibition, but her paints never arrived. Attracted to the fishing nets she watched on her evening walks, she enlisted the local fishermen to build a net in her desired shape. “In the worst moment of horrible pressure and anxiety, comes the moment of discovery”, she says. These early sculptures are of a more modest size than those adorning airports and cityscapes today. She also says that as she held them up with poles on the beach, “the wind (began) to interact with them and created a mesmerizing movement which I didn’t expect”, which consequently led her to installing them in the air.

In 2010, Echelman was commissioned by the Biennial of the Americas to build a sculpture that could celebrate the “interconnectedness” of the 35 nations included in the Western Hemisphere. After seeing a video of the tsunami that occurred as a result of the earthquake in Chile, she realized that the “ripple” of the ocean connected not only the Western Hemisphere, but also the entire globe. The artist, along with a team of professionals, acquired data from both NASA and NOAA, built a 3D model of the tsunami and eventually translated the information into a unique “areal laceinstallation” that is currently traveling the world. The title “Tsunami 1.26” refers to the milliseconds lost in the rotation of the earth from the earthquake. Echelman also uses a fiber called Spectra, which is actually a type of plastic that can act like a fiber so it retains the soft and fluid movement that attracts the artist, but is also stronger than steel and is resistant to moisture, salt and pollution. Apparently, these installations can survive both a blizzard and a hurricane.

Janet Echelman is an internationally recognized Harvard graduate, a 2010-2011 recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship in the Fine Arts, and recently gave a TED talk about her work. Echelman was invited to Sarasota to speak as part of a series of artist lectures at the future home of the Sarasota Museum of Art.

Watch Janet Echelman on TED Talks: 

You can also learn more about her by visiting: www.echelman.com