Janet Echelman, Where We Met
“The only thing I want to do is live a life of discovery. To be on the edge of learning at every phase of my life.” - Janet Echelman
Where We Met is the title of a woven aerial sculpture, recently installed in Greensboro, North Carolina, created by the internationally acclaimed American artist, Janet Echelman. My first view of Where We Met was from my hotel room; it appeared to be suspended between buildings, like a brightly colored nest in Greensboro's urban center.
Janet Echelman’s aerial sculptures have cut a graceful swath across national and international public spaces for nearly two decades; vibrantly colored weavings substantial enough to withstand hurricane force wind, yet soft as silk to the touch.
Where We Met is the first site specific installation of Janet Echelman’s work on the east coast of the United States. It is the result of a call by The Public Art Endowment, an initiative of The Community Foundation of Greater Greensboro , who wanted an iconic signature piece representative of the community and its relationship to the textile industry for the new downtown LeBauer Park.
“As an artist, it is very satisfying and a privilege to be able to make something and share it with people," Echleman said. "I am grateful to this community to be able to create something that didn’t exist before. And it is here every day, it becomes something different with each day, as the weather changes, and with each person as they bring their story and their mood. The work is unfolding and I see it as being completed by each person who visits and spends a moment of their life underneath it.”
The form of the artwork literally traces the roots of the textile industry in a leaf shaped outline of the railway lines, which once carried fabrics throughout the state.
“It was two years of active designing to the unveiling. I researched where the textile mills were located along this railroad network and discovered Greensboro’s nickname is the Gateway City. It was a hub where six different railway lines came together, and even though it was a different time of transportation, that sense of being a hub still remains a component of Greensboro. I thought that was an interesting connection between the 18th and 19th century and now.
The form is the first thing I develop," Echelman said. "I traced those six lines coming into this hub, putting marks where there is a textile mill. Greensboro was the center of the hub and when I traced it, it was almost like a seed pod. I had been looking at what was the native flora of this area, and I thought this was the right image for this park. “
Echelman was in town for a public unveiling and lighting of Where We Met. She has a history with North Carolina, having spent time in the area as a child, traveling from her hometown of Tampa, when her mother visited Penland School of Crafts for art classes. She said, “All my dolls were from there. My mother traded her artwork (jewelry) for them.”
We were standing underneath Where We Met at the time; Echelman was doing interviews and having her picture taken. “It is exciting to see this work in person,” she said, “after living with and thinking about it in its theoretical form, then in its computer analytical form and now in its reality.
It is so exciting to see it in the context of the city, and with the people engaging with it. My goal is to create a sense of place, where you can be in tune with yourself. If for one moment, any one person can be enriched by my work, then I will feel I have achieved my goal. That is what public art can be.”
By any measurable standard, Echelman has met and exceeded that goal. So many people visited her sculpture titled 1.8 London (installed 180 feet through the air between buildings above Oxford Circus, the busiest pedestrian area in all of London) they made the tube stop exit only. First Lady, Michele Obama, brought a delegation of foreign visitors to view and experience her work at the Smithsonian American Art Museum, where the Renwick Gallery’s Grand Salon was transformed with 100 feet of soft weaving.
Her commission for GLOW 2013, a triennial art event for site-specific works in Santa Monica, titled The Space Between Us, drew more than 150,000 people for a one-night event – from dusk to dawn. Echelman has been awarded the Smithsonian America Ingenuity Award in Visual Arts, honoring “the greatest innovators in America today” and she was ranked number one on Oprah Magazine’s List of 50 Things that Make You Say Wow!.
Echelman crafted her aerial sculptures by observing and following the hand knotted traditions that have comprised fishing nets for centuries. She has combined and honed that craft in Studio Echelman; leading and collaborating with masters of crafts from around the globe: computer scientists and software engineers, architects, and engineers that have worked with sailboats in the America’s Cup are just a few.
Studio Echelman writes “Janet Echelman reshapes urban airspace with movement, fluidly moving sculpture that responds to environmental forces including wind, water and sunlight.” The work is woven on looms, with hand stitched connections, using technical fabric – the same material of which astronaut space suits are comprised – essentially Teflon. It is “engineered to remain soft and fluid, delicate and ethereal while remaining robust.”
Her aerial sculptures of immense scale are installed high above and between buildings, catching the wind and light and drawing visitors to public spaces which may have been empty and unused before. “My sculptures thrive in the context of the city, interacting with people in the course of their lives.” Echelman said.
"I didn’t seem destined to create these sculptures,” said Echelman. “I was rejected by seven art schools. When I was a teenager I wanted to study law and defend civil rights. When I got to college I realized I am a slow reader, so that is how I ended up taking my first art class.
I was overwhelmed with the quantity of reading and writing in college and needed one class that didn’t have a required reading list; that's how I ended up in drawing at Harvard. I discovered I wanted to become an artist; the life of questioning and being responsible for pushing yourself to your edge at any given moment, that really appealed to me.
It is exciting for me. And in a way, it is a new research project every time.”
Janet Echelman finds it exciting to push boundaries, “constraints are the keys to new discoveries and opportunities as an artist.” In her speech at Greensboro, she titled a section in her speech: New Challenges. Like ionized water, for example, another material she is working with to create an installation in Philadelphia.
In person, Echelman is charming and unassuming. She is attentive when peppered with questions, and often will stop, take a breath, evaluate her environment and respond. Her intellect and curiosity are evident within her work, her choices to delve deeply into projects and challenge herself in different urban environments.
When you work with immense scale (some of Echelman’s pieces span 200 feet, the Boston installation was 600) you must be able to visualize the entire environment. During the Greensboro project, it became clear opening a pedestrian walkway would enhance the experience of Where We Met. “We sketched this idea, that this road would be best if it were straightened (leading into the park). And Greensboro is such an incredible community that they worked together to make it happen. Greensboro is a place where ideas become reality. I am so impressed with this community.” Echelman said. I was impressed with Greensboro too.
It takes many resources in a community to change the street grid and urban landscape of a city. Where We Met is tethered in place by four masts. When evening comes, a combination of lights embedded in the masts illuminates the sculpture, lighting up the night sky. The turquoise visible during the day becomes the color of denim, long carried by the surrounding railways.
Where We Met, will rise each spring, and come down in late fall. Like all of her aerial sculptures it can withstand winds of 90 to 110 miles per hour, but ice is a nemesis. It changes the fluidity of the work. Echelman likes that “it will come down in the fall and rise again in the spring,” like nature.
Echelman prefers to name each sculpture installation once it is complete or nearly installed. Where We Met , Echelman said, "is referring to these six railroad lines of the Gateway City all coming together here, from different walks of life, different cultures, different races; everybody came together here. It is not a separate history, it is a interwoven history, all knotted together, all of these brilliant colors come together, when the wind moves they all move as one.”
Renwick 1.8, in the Smithsonian, refers to the length of time measured in microseconds that the earth’s day was shortened as a result of a physical event; the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. As If It Were Already Here, a signature piece installed in Boston, echoes the history of its location. Three voids recall Tri Mountain, which was razed in the 18th century to create land from the harbor.
The titles alone personify the amount of research and detail, that is a component of any Janet Echelman sculpture. I was curious what other medium she might use and posed the question to her.
“I am working in other medium. I am doing collaborations in dance – my first project was with the Stuttgart Ballet in Germany. They said, we know you have been working with the choreography of wind (Renwick 1.8), but could you work with the human body and our choreographer? So we began making nets that connect to the human body, and they dance them. That is one new collaboration.
I am working with scientists at the Broad Institute of Genomics to understand the underpinnings of the very smallest elements of life; I am working with a professor at MIT where I am learning about a very tiny, tiny organism that lives in the ocean, and produces one out of five breaths that we breath of oxygen. It is so small we didn’t know it existed until recently, because it is smaller than a wavelength of light. So how that turns into a work of art, I don’t know yet.
I really like the physical connection when I can. My team is all over the world, my lead engineer is based in Seattle, our lighting designer is in New York. It is always a team; we do a lot of video conferencing; we share our video screens – it is a different kind of being together." Echelman said. Just like her work: The ethereal weavings are anchored in place, yet are never the same in any given moment, constantly changing and evolving in their physical environments, day to night and moment to moment.
Echelman.com www.echelman.com/lectures/ ( ted talk)
I encourage you to visit Janet Echelman’s website for a portfolio of all her work, and an array of images. She deserves an autobiography, as there are more stories to tell: how she began this work as a result of her paints being lost in Mahabalipuram. But what I wish, is for everyone to experience her artwork themselves.
Special note: Janet Echelman's sculptures arrive in boxes. I had seen two photos showing the boxes, one an over sized Rubbermaid style, and one wooden crate. Those same boxes store any sculptures that were temporary commissions in Studio Echelman. At the end of the public talk in Greensboro, I mentioned to her husband, I thought Studio Echelman needed to create wooden crates with a specially designed artist chop, Indian Jones style. He seemed to like that idea.