SCHEMATIC DESIGN FOR ST. PETERSBURG, FL
Janet Echelman was selected by the City of St. Petersburg, FL to design a new site-specific artwork for the city’s new Pier District. Echelman’s team has produced initial designs for the artwork to be cited at the Heart of Pier Park. If the city moves forward with the project, the sculpture would possibly open in the summer of 2019, around the time the new St. Pete Pier opens.
FREQUENTLY ASKED QUESTIONS
WHAT IS YOUR HISTORY IN FLORIDA, AND MORE SPECIFICALLY YOUR RELATIONSHIP TO ST. PETERSBURG? WHAT ABOUT IT INSPIRES YOU TO CREATE THE ARTWORK?
This artwork is inspired by the nearby Spa Beach, which the sculpture garden site leads directly to. The site has a rich history and visual culture related to leisure stretches back through the last century. I used historical postcards showing the Mediterranean revival architecture of the pier combined with colorful patterned beach parasols, and these patterns and palette served as a touchstone during my design process. I also looked at the marine life growing around the site, especially at the colonies of barnacles that thrive underneath the pier, which led me to combine three parasol forms into one sculpture.
My family came to Florida in the difficult pioneering days before air-conditioners, refrigerators, or even electric fans. In the 1880s, the first member of our family rived in Florida when his boat from Europe to New Orleans shipwrecked off Key West. He brought more family over and founded Rippa Brothers Cigar Factory in Key West. In 1908 my great-grandmother, her sister, and their husbands moved to the Tampa Bay area, opening a dry goods store in Ybor city on Seventh Avenue, and the Sierkese Department Store in St. Petersburg on Central Avenue in 1912. My grandmother had to drop out of high school to work in the store when her mother got sick, which makes me really appreciate the opportunities open to me. As more than seventy years passed, Sierkese shifted from luggage and ready-to-wear clothing to focus on fabrics and sewing patterns, becoming St. Petersburg’s longest continuously family-run business. I was born and raised, attending public school in the Tampa Bay area. My Mom and aunt opened five clothing boutiques called the Boulevard Shops of Florida, and I grew up picking fabric scraps off the backroom floors, mesmerized by the vibrant chiffons and silks. So I guess it should be no surprise that I’m inspired by the historic fabric colors and patterns of the parasols that adorned St Pete’s Spa Beach.
COULD YOU SPEAK BRIEFLY ABOUT THE PROCESS OF CREATING THE NET SCULPTURE?
To create the sculptural form, I work with our studio architects, designers, and model-makers collaborate with an external team of aeronautical and structural engineers, computer scientists, lighting designers, landscape architects, my fabrication team, the city and its contractors to bring my initial sketches into reality. We fabricate our artworks through a combination of hand splicing and knotting together with industrial looms, and then professional riggers install on location.
WHAT ARE THE ADVANTAGES OF THE PIER PARK SITE AND WHAT DO YOU ENVISION IT WILL MEAN FOR VISITORS TO THE PIER DISTRICT?
There are two big advantages. First, the new site is becoming a fully planted garden with shaped lawn and water features, and the landscape architect is redesigning the garden to fit the shape and usage of the sculpture. Second, the new site is highly accessible (the former location at the end of Spa Beach would have required people to walk a significant distance without shade to get to the sculpture). Now you can park your car and within steps arrive at the sculpture garden. These two reasons together mean the sculpture garden can become a destination for events underneath it, like concerts and movie nights.
ARE YOUR SCULPTURES ENVIRONMENTALLY SAFE TO BIRDS AND WILDLIFE?
I get asked questions frequently about the safety of birds and wildlife with respect to my sculptures. No bird or creature has ever been harmed from one of my artworks, and I’ve had major public sculptures out in the environment on multiple continents since 2004, including waterfront and beach areas similar to the Spa Beach site. We have letters from various cities who own the sculptures confirming this. My work goes through a careful review in order to receive legal permits before construction begins. We consulted SW Regional Shorebird Biologists for the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and provided them with in-depth information about our plans for the St. Pete pier sculpture. Below is a quote from them upon review of our design:
“Based on your decade of global experience with no reported incidences regarding bird entanglement, we do not foresee any potential impacts with this specific project at Spa Beach. The art installation’s movement, color, wide net mesh openings, and thick guide lines should suffice in reducing the risk of bird entanglements.”
WHAT IS YOUR OLDEST PERMANENT PUBLIC INSTALLATION TO DATE?
I installed a large aerial permanent sculpture titled She Changes in Porto, Portugal on a beachfront roundabout in 2004. It has become a beloved local icon for the area, and even became the Google Earth thumbnail image to represent the entire country of Portugal. I follow social media to see how the space is used today and found photos of people enjoying the space underneath it despite the fact that it’s encircled by a three-lane highway– even and there’s no crosswalk!
WHAT MEASURES WOULD BE TAKEN TO ENSURE THE LONGEVITY OF THE ST. PETERSBURG PIECE, GIVEN THE COASTAL CLIMATE AND POSSIBILITIES OF HURRICANES?
In creating work to be installed in climates with weather conditions like St. Pete, I’ve found that forms that are able to fluidly and gracefully adapt to changing circumstances are the most successful. They’re soft and flexible, able to let hurricane-strength winds pass through its soft mesh structure. Its strength is gained through resiliency, not brute force. That said, we use a variety of highly-engineered fibers. For example, my Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene fiber is 15 times stronger than steel by weight, and is the same material NASA used to tether the Mars Rover. I also use colorfast fibers like Polytetrafluoroethylene which is 100% resistant to UV light, high temperatures, pollution, and even chemical reactions - all while retaining its full strength. It is more commonly known as either PTFE or Teflon, and is the same material that coats Astronaut’s space suits and nonstick frying pans. Our engineers from Arup (https://www.arup.com/) have confirmed our Schematic Design for St. Petersburg to withstand 150+mph wind and to fully satisfy all local building code relevant to the Spa Beach site.
More information on the materials:
WOULD THE SCULPTURE HAVE TO BE TAKEN DOWN DURING A STORM? HOW WOULD THIS BE DONE?
Our engineers for the sculpture for St. Pete have engineered a system designed to withstand hurricanes and all weather conditions for the region. Our work has withstood severe winds and storms typical of the local climate for more than a decade. The reason ice storms create a different situation is because of their significant increase in weight to the sculpture which is not the case in hurricanes. My permanent sculpture directly on the ocean front in Porto, Portugal (She Changes) is in a region that experiences cyclones and hurricanes and has been there since December, 2004.
Our design for St. Pete does not include a winch system, but as a reference, the system designed for Greensboro’s winter both installs and de-installs the sculpture within approximately one hour by routine park maintenance staff.
WHAT IS THE SCULPTURE LIKE DURING DAYTIME HOURS?
In daylight, my sculpture will fluidly respond to the ever-changing weather and specifically the coastal wind, making the airflow visible in constant, billowing patterns of movement. Against a sunny sky, the netted forms will cast shadow-drawings on the ground below.
My choice for fiber color and pattern was inspired by the vibrantly-patterned beach parasols seen on historical postcards, and these colored twines can be seen against the blue sky in daytime.
HOW WILL THE SCULPTURE BE ILLUMINATED?
For all my artworks, I use sustainable low-energy LED light fixtures which are run by a control system to modulate the changes of colored light automatically to transform the artwork at night into a floating, luminous form. Different color palettes allow me to express a desired mood and content for my sculptures as related to the context and location. Once I begin Design Development for the sculpture, the precise lighting plan will be detailed.
WHAT ARE DIMENSIONS?
In our preliminary design, the dimensions of the proposed net sculpture are approx. 260ft x 120ft, but these will likely shift slightly during the next design phase as we learn more about the site.
WHAT IS THE MAINTENANCE PLAN FOR CARE AND REPAIRS?
The suggested maintenance is very simple – it can be cleaned as needed by spraying water on the net to remove dust and residue, which will depend on rain levels, as that will also serve to clean the net. This simple maintenance would be completed by city staff.
As in all of my projects, the engineers prepare in their final documentation a protocol should the need for repair throughout its lifetime arise. Any minor maintenance repairs will be done by local professionals, and if needed, for anything beyond that we are able to provide replacement parts according to the original fabrication methods.
HOW DO YOU TAKE PUBLIC COMMENTS – BOTH NEGATIVE AND POSITIVE?
It’s important to listen to local voices and I try to learn from any critical comments but I have developed an ability to stay centered in my design process, and stay true to my artistic vision.
Going as far back as 2003 with the rollout of images of my design for Porto, Portugal we had critical newspaper articles because my work had been selected over their Portuguese Pritzker Award-winning architect but since the work was installed in 2004 it has become a beloved local icon for the region. Their football stadium uses a silhouette of my sculpture for their logo, and the sculpture even became the single iconic image thumbnail on Google Earth to represent the entire country of Portugal.
In Phoenix in 2008, there was much debate and my sculpture was actually cancelled once because of it. But more than 100 people showed up to speak at City Hall and only 1 speaker was in opposition. It’s worth noting that the Downtown Business Coalition came out formally in favor of the sculpture citing its role in revitalization of their downtown economy. Now it’s the icon image of the city when a national newspaper like the Wall Street Journal picks an image to represent Phoenix and it has won awards from the Americans for the Arts Public Art Network and the Rudy Bruner Award for Urban Excellence, but what matters most to me is that people care about it and love it. The City Manager recently introduced me for an international conference for city managers that happened to be held in Phoenix. He started by saying that he initially opposed the project and that now he loved it and could not imagine the city without it. That meant a lot.
My Phoenix sculpture is now featured in a widely-published college art textbook, ArtForms by Prof. Patrick Frank, who writes of the sculpture that "... most Arizonans look on the work with pride: this unique visual delight will forever mark the city of Phoenix just as the Eiffel Tower marks Paris."
DO YOU FIND THAT YOUR STYLE OF ART NEEDS TO BE EXPERIENCED IN PERSON TO BE APPRECIATED AND UNDERSTOOD AS OPPOSED TO LOOKING AT IMAGES?
Yes, my work is Experiential Art. So, to be fully appreciated, a person needs to physically experience it for themselves. After my work was installed in Boston, the Boston Globe columnist wrote about it: “Spend a little time with it, and you see more. It doesn’t just alter the space, and the sky above, but also the people who take it in.”
Now that we live in an age of social media, I get to see the first person photos and captions that people share about my experience with my art. For example, at the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, one Instagram post said “melting with art, we become part of the exhibition.” For me as an artist, the act of people experiencing the art is what completes it. For that installation, there was so much social media shared that the Washington Post featured my sculpture in an article about the phenomena, and the museum was named on Artnet’s list of 'Most Instagrammed Museums of the Year.'
Pier Park, St. Petersburg, FL