Janet Echelman sculpts at the scale of buildings and city blocks. Echelman’s work defies categorization, as it intersects Sculpture, Architecture, Urban Design, Material Science, Structural & Aeronautical Engineering, and Computer Science. Echelman’s art transforms with wind and light, and shifts from being “an object you look at, into an experience you can get lost in”.
Using unlikely materials from aramid fiber to atomized water particles, Echelman combines ancient craft with computational design software to create artworks that have become focal points for urban life on five continents, from Singapore, Sydney, Shanghai, and Santiago, to Beijing, Boston, New York and London. Permanent works in Porto (Portugal), Vancouver (Canada), San Francisco, West Hollywood, Phoenix, Eugene, Greensboro, Philadelphia, and Seattle transform daily with colored light.
Curiosity defines Janet Echelman’s educational path, and it has thus been nonlinear. After graduating from Harvard College, she lived in a Balinese village for 5 years, then completed separate graduate programs in Painting and in Psychology. A recipient of an honorary Doctorate from Tufts University, Echelman taught last year as Visiting Professor at MIT, and will teach next year at Princeton University.
Her TED talk "Taking Imagination Seriously" has been translated into 35 languages with more than two million views. Recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship, Harvard Loeb Fellowship, Aspen Institute Henry Crown Fellowship, and Fulbright Sr. Lectureship, Echelman received the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award in Visual Arts, honoring “the greatest innovators in America today.” In popular culture, Oprah ranked Echelman’s work #1 on her List of 50 Things That Make You Say Wow!, and Echelman was named an Architectural Digest Innovator for "changing the very essence of urban spaces."
Echelman first set out to be an artist after graduating from college. She travelled to Hong Kong in 1987 to study Chinese calligraphy and brush-painting. Later she moved to Bali, Indonesia, where she collaborated with artisans to combine traditional textile methods with contemporary painting.
When she lost her bamboo house in Bali to a fire, Echelman returned to the United States and began teaching at Harvard. After seven years as an Artist-in-Residence, she returned to Asia, embarking on a Fulbright lectureship in India.
Promising to give painting exhibitions around the country on behalf of the US Embassy, Echelman shipped her special paints and equipment to Mahabalipuram, a fishing village famous for sculpture. The deadline for the shows arrived - but her paints did not. Echelman, inspired by the local materials and culture, began working with bronze casters in the village but soon found the material too heavy and expensive.
Echelman walked along the beach daily, watching the fishermen bundling their nets into mounds on the sand. She'd seen it every day, but this time saw it differently - a new approach to sculpture, a way to make volumetric form without heavy, solid materials.
Her first satisfying sculptures were hand-crafted in collaboration with those fishermen. Hoisting them onto poles, she discovered that their delicate surfaces revealed every ripple of wind in constantly changing patterns and she was mesmerized.
Today Echelman constructs net sculpture environments in cities around the world. Echelman’s studio is based in Boston, where she lives with her husband David Feldman and their two children.
Studio Echelman explores the cutting edge of sculpture, public art, and urban transformation. Assembled and led by internationally recognized sculptor Janet Echelman, the design team focuses on the development and creation of large-scale artworks. The design team spans the globe and includes architects, aeronautical and mechanical engineers, lighting designers, computer scientists, landscape architects, and fabricators.
The permanent and temporary projects draw inspiration from ancient craft and combine technology to create living, breathing pieces that respond to the forces of nature. These sculpture environments embody local identity and invite people to form a personal and dynamic relationship with art and place.
Embracing change is central to the meaning and physical manifestation of the art. Viewers experience artwork that is always changing, as the soft surfaces of fiber or mist sculptures are constantly billowing and adapting their shape in response to the ever-changing patterns of wind and sunlight. At night, the perceived color slowly changes through the addition of programmed projections of colored LED lighting. In daylight, viewers see the embedded physical color of the fiber material, which also changes gradually through time. Projects are designed according to the climate and intended lifespan for each site and context.
BIRDS AND WILDLIFE INFORMATION
We get asked questions frequently about the safety of birds and wildlife with respect to our sculptures. No bird or creature has ever been harmed from one of our artworks. Our work goes through a careful review in order to receive legal permits before construction begins. We consulted a bio-engineering firm that explained how the physical qualities of the artwork do not meet the criteria that would endanger birds. Our nets are made of thicker rope with wider net openings than those used to entrap flying birds or other creatures. Our structures are not unlike naturally occurring vines and thickets often found in local forests, and birds are well adapted to avoid these.
JANET ECHELMAN CHRONOLOGY
1980 Piano soloist for eight concerts of Grieg’s Piano Concerto in A minor with the Florida Orchestra.
1987 Moves to Bali, Indonesia after graduating from Harvard.
1989 Robert Rauschenberg discovers Echelman’s art in Asia and curates solo in the US. Rauschenberg purchases three canvases for personal collection.
1992 After living in Bali for five years, a house fire destroys studio. Invited to teach at Harvard. Moves to Cambridge.
1997 Travels to India on a Fulbright Lectureship to teach painting and exhibit work. Painting supplies never arrive. Looks towards local surroundings and begins first sculptures using indigenous fishing nets.
1999 Establishes studio in New York City.
2004 Collaborates with engineer to create custom software to design porous, dynamically moving sculptures. Studio is able to design sculpture for hurricane winds and harsh weather conditions. Adapts industrial material previously used for astronaut’s spacesuits to make long-lasting twine.
2005 Premieres first monumental permanent outdoor sculpture in Porto, Portugal to suspend above highway roundabout. She Changes is inspired by traditional local lace-making, fishing traps, and striped smokestacks.
2009 Creates Her Secret is Patience, a sculpture icon for downtown Phoenix, Arizona. Works with roller-coaster manufacturer to bend metal armature. Incorporates programmable lighting that changes gradually through the seasons. Credited with creating a sense of place that fosters urban identity and revitalization.
2009 Installs Water Sky Garden for the 2010 Vancouver Olympic Winter Games speed-skating venue – the Richmond Olympic Oval. Works with team to shape visitors’ path through the space. Designs two netted sculptures and “water drawing” fountains that utilize run-off water.
2010 Explores use of Aramid fibers to create tensioned structural layer that will hold sculptural form, which allows complete removal of steel armature. Result is Echelman’s first completely soft urban sculpture, which becomes so light it can attach to existing buildings, and allows the art to literally weave in the fabric of the city. Premiere of 1.26 in Denver’s Civic Center Park to commemorate the first Biennial of the Americas. Draws inspiration from the interconnectedness of Earth’s systems. Studio uses laboratory data from NASA and NOAA on the effects of the 2010 Chile earthquake, and the resulting 1.26-microsecond shortening of the Earth’s day.
2010 Philadelphia’s Center City District selects Echelman to create iconic artwork for the redesign of Dilworth Plaza. Artwork moves curtains of mist and colored light to trace the paths of subway trains above ground.
2011 Echelman presents a main stage TED talk in Long Beach, CA. Her “Taking Imagination Seriously” talk has been translated into 34 languages and is estimated to have been viewed by more than a million people worldwide.
2011 Every Beating Second, commissioned by San Francisco Arts Commission, premieres in newly renovated Terminal 2 at San Francisco International Airport. Echelman creates a “Zone of Recomposure” to provide travelers a contemplative environment. Cuts three round skylights into the ceiling to suspend translucent, colored netting.
2011 Echelman is named a Fellow of the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation for demonstrating “exceptional capacity for productive scholarship or exceptional creative ability in the arts.”
2011 1.26 sculpture travels to Sydney, Australia for Sydney’s Art & About event. Sculpture is suspended from Sydney Town Hall over busiest traffic intersection on the continent. Composed of fibers more than 15 times stronger than steel by weight, its low-impact, ultra-lightweight design allows it to temporarily attach to existing architecture.
2012 Selected by Architectural Digest as a 2012 Innovator. Describes Echelman’s sculpture as “changing the very essence of urban spaces.” One of eight artists, architects, landscape architects, and designers from around the globe chosen to receive honor.
2012 Begins collaboration with Autodesk to develop custom software tool to design netted sculptures. Studio pushes the boundaries of their designs by more easily exploring net densities, shape, and scale, and simulating the effects of gravity and wind.
2012 1.26 makes European debut – its third continent after Denver and Sydney. 230-foot aerial sculpture is signature project of the inaugural Amsterdam Light Festival, suspended over the Amstel River in front of City Hall and Muziektheater.
2013 Oprah Magazine ranks Echelman’s work #1 on her “List of 50 Things that Make You Say Wow!” in September issue. List showcases 50 people, places, or things, for their ability to “inspire and captivate” viewers.
2013 The Space Between Us premieres at GLOW, an all-night art event on Santa Monica Beach. Echelman incorporates audio component synced with custom lighting. 150,000 people attend and participate in sculpting earthwork beneath aerial sculpture. NY Times credits Echelman’s work for “giving crafts a coolly conceptual edge.”
2014 1.26 sculpture premieres in Singapore, its fourth continent, for the iLight Marina Bay Festival.
2014 Installation of largest, most technologically challenging project to date at the TED Conference’s 30th anniversary in Vancouver. Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks spans 745 feet from roof of skyscraper over street, water, and pedestrian traffic. Echelman delivers second TED mainstage talk.
2014 Janet receives 2014 Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award in Visual Arts, “to celebrate the greatest innovators in America today.” Architect Daniel Libeskind introduces Echelman and presents award.
2015 Installs permanent iconic sculpture at Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation campus headquarters in Seattle. Impatient Optimist gives visual form to the foundation’s spirit and mission.
2015 Studio premieres a monumental, aerial sculpture over the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston. As If It Were Already Here knits together the urban fabric and attaches to 3 buildings, soaring 600 feet through the air above street traffic and pedestrian park.
2015 The Smithsonian American Art Museum commissions Echelman to create an artwork to transform their iconic Renwick Gallery after a major, two-year renovation. 1.8 Renwick is then acquired for their permanent collection.
2016 Premiere of 1.8 London – lightweight sculpture that surged 180 feet through the air between buildings above Oxford Circus, busiest pedestrian area in all of London. Permanent sculpture inspired by textile history and railroad mapping - Where We Met - is installed in Greensboro, North Carolina.
2017 Installation of permanent artwork Dream Catcher on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, California. Debut of sculptural work in China with the premiere of 1.26 Shanghai and 1.8 Beijing.
2018 New sculpture 1.78 premieres in Madrid’s Plaza Mayor for its 400th Anniversary, and 1.78 makes its U.A.E. debut against the iconic backdrop of the Burj Khalifa and Dubai Fountain. Opening of Pulse, Echelman’s new permanent sculpture that traces the paths of the subway and trolley lines that converge under Dilworth Park, Philadelphia.