agenda by The Editors

Influenced by a trip to India, the American artist recounts the journey that inspired her ethereal sculptures.

reading time 14 minutes

Janet Echelman is an artist who projects her vision on an immense scale. Combining ancient craft with cutting-edge technology, she creates beautiful textile installations the size of skyscrapers that transform with wind and light, and installs them over city squares around the world. Today, she shares the unlikely story that allowed her to find this unusual form, explains the inspiration behind the unique shapes of her sculptures, and offers aspiring artists advice on finding the right art form for themselves.

I love the story of how you first found your medium. You travelled to India as a painter on a Fulbright scholarship, but somehow your paints didn’t make it, and you had to think about what else you could do for your exhibition there. One day, you saw fishermen working with their nets and you had this vision that has unfolded and expanded until this day to the skies above our city squares. What lessons did you draw from that fortunate coincidence for yourself, and what would you advise other artists trying to find their form?
I learned that constraints can sometimes open a door for you. If my paints had arrived, I would’ve kept making paintings. Instead, it forced me into a zone of discomfort where I didn’t have my tools, my palate — the language I was comfortable expressing myself in. A constraint like that can push you to the pure essence of what you’re trying to express. It forces you to be in the moment, to think in the moment, to respond and to make new connections in your mind.

Twenty years later, your aerial sculptures are in city centers all around the world. Where do you get inspiration for the unique shapes?
Everywhere really. My most recent piece is inspired by looking at the mapping of brain waves during dreaming, partly because I was having trouble sleeping and I was watching a youtube video in the middle of the night of brain waves during REM sleep. I’m always looking at both the micro and macro of the physical world for inspiration. I’m looking at the patterns of aerodynamics, the way fluids move in air and water. I’m looking at data sets as a way of giving a visual form to an abstract idea.

How do you research the sites where you erect your sculptures?
With each project, I have a research period where I just pour into the site and its physical and cultural history. I was trained as a psychotherapist in an earlier phase of my life and this helps me understand how a place constructs its identity and expresses it. I immerse myself in the place by talking to as many local people as possible. I research the geography, the weather, the air, not to mention its industrial history and culture. The project we’re currently working on in Philadelphia is on a site that used to be the city’s waterworks. The plaza it’s in was created when the railroad station was knocked down. The fiber material I usually use didn’t really speak to that place and its history. Instead we’re using atomized water particles. That felt like the right material, because it could co-exist with the building in a way that didn’t compete with it, but enhanced it. We’re pairing it with colored light. It will trace the path of subway trains passing beneath in real time. 

What role are your sculptures supposed to play in public spaces, and how has your view of that role evolved over time?
I think that the role of the work is different in each place. In certain places, I’m creating a moment of contemplation and re-centering in the midst of a frenetic city. In other places, I’m trying to inject energy and saturated color. It’s very different with temporary works where I think the impact can be quite bold — sort of like an invitation into a conversation. The permanent commissions are more like a lifelong relationship, where its qualities have to be more subtle, and have to change with the seasons. I want people to have relationships with the sculptures. When I was in college,  if I had a few minutes between classes, I would just drop into the Fogg Art Museum to visit this one painting. It was a self-portrait of Van Gogh. I had a relationship with that painting. It was part of my life. I think that’s kind of the way I would like my work to be.

How do you experience your own work and how and how does that inform your process?
I love to spend time there. I never tell people who I am. I’m more like the fly on the wall. I like most of all to observe strangers talking to each other about it, as they encounter something so out of the expected realm. Generally the outcome exceeds my expectation from the rendering. It’s always different than we expected.

Twenty years ago you found this form that has taken you so far and given you so much joy. What would you advise young artists who are trying to find their own medium?
I think the most important thing is to find something you throughly enjoy. If you get absolutely no recognition or positive response from the world, you should still have that pure enjoyment of the experience. If the world is interested in what you have to say, that’s just the icing on the cake. Don’t go through life waiting for others to respond. The work itself should be fun enough. That’s the sort of thing that I have built my life on.

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