Janet Echelman did not set out to be a sculptor. Now an internally renowned artist whose honors included a Guggenheim Fellowship and top ranking on Oprah Magazine's List of 50 Things that Make You Say Wow!, Echelman began as a painter, traveling to Asia to study calligraphy and batik techniques. It wasn't until a trip to India on a Fulbright Lectureship that she turned to sculpture after her paints were lost in transit from the U.S. "I was forced to embrace what was around me. That just happened to be fishing nets," Echelman says. She began exploring fiber netting as a medium upon observing local fisherman. "The ideas I began working with when I started in Hong Kong studying Chinese calligraphy—of creating visual marks that express movement and gesture—are still central to my work," Echelman explains. "But instead of painting a stroke of pigment onto canvas, I'm now creating a set of points that have the potential for physical gesture in the world, and bringing that to the realm of everyday life at the scale of the city."
Echelman's massive net-based installations transform urban spaces into public art experiences. Her 600-foot aerial sculpture As If It Were Already Here hung over the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston for six months. While huge in scale, the piece was remarkably delicate and subject to environmental influences. This juxtaposition is Echelman's signature—her work is designed to be immersive and nuanced, allowing for viewers to become a part of the art. Her pieces demonstrate the interplay between space, art, and viewer: as the art transforms the space, the viewer imbues and transforms the art with their own unique meaning. It is this interplay that also comes to define Echelman's art as distinctly "public." "I think art in the public sphere is vitally important," she says. "I want my work to be as accessible and free as breathing air."
Echelman's art is also intensely collaborative (a quick scan of existing press turns up the phrases "collective," "team sport," and "colossal choreography," among others). In the course of a single installation, she and her studio team work with engineers, artisans and loom operators, city and public safety officials, and local organizations to determine the scope, design, production, and installation of a piece.
Echelman finds that her graduate degree in Counseling and Psychology from Lesley aids in this collaborative process. After a fire engulfed her home in Bali, she returned to the U.S. seeking meaningful work that would complement her life as an artist. "I learned so much from the courses and internships, especially learning to use 'self as instrument'," she says. "I use that knowledge frequently in my work today, and find it some of the most valuable learning of my formal education." Echelman worked as a therapist for several years before an artistic opportunity took her abroad once more, and since then has found her work as a professional artist keeps her quite busy.
Echelman's work was on display at the Smithsonian American Art Museum's Renwick Gallery as part of the Wonder exhibition. 1.8 (Renwick) refers to the length of time in microseconds that the Earth's day was shortened as a result of a catastrophic physical event: the 2011 tsunami off the coast of Japan. The forms in the sculpture were inspired by data sets of the wave heights across the Pacific Ocean, and digitally-controlled artificial wind devices installed in the gallery walls create subtle movement in the fibers of the sculpture, replicating the natural elements of her outdoor installations. In addition to Echelman's signature fiver work, 1.8 (Renwick) also features a 4,000 square foot textile floor composed of regenerated nylon fibers repurposed from fiber fishing nets. The flooring echoes the topography of the sculpture, and creates new opportunities for visitors to experience and utilize the piece. "People are engaged with the space in different ways from my outdoor work, and I am thrilled with the results," she says.
Looking back, Echelman finds that her time at Lesley also informs her work as an artist. "The self-reflective nature of the program taught me about my own emotions, and this increased honesty and acceptance of self is the deep reservoir from which my art grows."
View Janet's 2011 TED Talk.
Photography: Melissa Henry, Peter Vanderwarker
Videography: Melissa Henry, Julian Tryba, Above Summit, Bruce Petschek
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