The First Lady of Light Sculpture

Janet Echelman not only lights up, but seems to reinvent the sky with her mesmerizing enormous sculptures. She sees public sculpture as a team sport

Interview by Lora Wiley - Art by Janet Echelman

Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks by Janet Echelman
Photo © Ema Peter

Citizen Brooklyn: Your early creative journey took you to Hong Kong, Bali, and India. It sounds a bit like an artist’s version of Eat, Pray Love. How did connecting with other cultures help you evolve as an artist and as a person?

I didn’t necessarily know why traveling to live in these places was important when I first set out. My whole life is a bit of a discovery, where it’s only looking back that I understand why I needed to learn what that place taught me.

When I was 21 years old, I had the privilege to receive a scholarship to study Chinese brush-painting and calligraphy at the University of Hong Kong as a Rotary Foundation Scholar. This transformed my trajectory, as it taught me the importance of the expressive capability of physical gesture. The way the hand moves through space is translated into the way the ink flows from the brush. And now the gesture comes from the movements of the wind, and my brush is the physical thread of fiber that moves and expresses the wind’s pressure and choreography.

Sea by Janet Echelman  Photo © Sean Airhart

Impatient Optimist by Janet Echelman Photo © Sean Airhart

After Hong Kong, I decided to move to Bali, where I found a grass-roofed house in the rice fields. Living in a Balinese village taught me how the way space is organized can create a sense of well-being – from the placement of small offerings of flowers and rice, to the way my bed was placed within my room, within my house, within my compound, within my village – all spatially situated with respect to the Holy Mountain. Bali is a culture passed down generation to generation. Instead of books, it’s the color combinations, forms, and even physical gestures of dance and shadow puppets. In Bali, being an artist is not a rarified or marginalized role in society. The farmer-artist is a very common combination. It was important to me to feel that my work as an artist was part of regular life. Especially coming from Hong Kong, where every time someone asked what I did for a living and I answered that I’m an artist, they’d always follow up with “but what do you really do?”

I went to India to learn about the sources of that culture, and was inspired by the small shrines on street corners and humble spaces. In Japan, I was moved by the garden design, especially in Buddhist Temples, but also small gardens in homes or public eateries.

Everywhere I visit or live influences my life and in turn, my artwork.

Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks by Janet Echelman
Photo © Ema Peter

CBK: The genesis of these sculptures was inspired by fishermen. What was that “a-ha” moment like and the experience of collaborating with them on your first sculpture?

I started out as painter who traveled to India on a Fulbright with the plan to teach painting and present a series of painting exhibition for the U.S. Embassy. I shipped my paints and tools, but they hadn’t arrived, and the deadline for my show was fast approaching. Instead of hitting my head against a wall about what wasn’t there, I decided to embrace my surroundings and discover the materials and methods around me. I was in South India, where lost-wax bronze casting has been famous for a millennium. I spend some weeks casting bronze sculpture, but realized metal was too heavy and expensive for me to use at the scale I wanted. I was distraught, and went for a walk on the beach to have a think. That’s when I saw the fishermen bundling their nets into mounds on the sand. I’d seen it every day, but this time I saw it differently – a new approach to sculpture, a way to make volumetric form without heavy solid materials.

My first satisfying sculpture was made in collaboration with the fishermen, a self-portrait which I titled “Wide Hips.” We hoisted them onto poles to photograph. I discovered their soft surfaces revealed every ripple of wind in constantly changing patterns and was mesmerized.

Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks by Janet Echelman
Photo © Ema Peter

CBK: The large-scale outdoor sculptures take how long to complete?

It varies. My most recent piece, Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks, took my studio 3 years to design, engineer, fabricate, and install in the city. But I’ve done other sculptures within months under tight deadlines and many late nights!

CBK: How big is your team? Explain the diversity of skills required.

I work with a tight-knit group of talented design colleagues in my studio, and an external team of brilliant aeronautical and mechanical engineers, lighting designers, computer scientists, architects, and industrial fabricators and artisans. We also interact with government, including elected officials who decide how to spend public funds, and urban planners and engineering review boards who grant permission for us to install our sculptures in cities.

Van by Janet Echelman  Photo © Ema Peter

Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks by Janet Echelman
Photo © Ema Peter

I see public sculpture as a team sport. Being able to work with so many talented individuals expands the scope with which I can speak as an artist. I am always learning from colleagues, and what we create together is definitely greater than what I could create myself.

CBK: What are some challenging moments you’ve faced in creating one of your pieces? Most rewarding?

Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks, which premiered this year at the TED Conference’s 30th anniversary in Vancouver, was both the most technically challenging and required the most complex coordination of any sculpture thus far. It turned out we created the largest pre-stressed rope structure in the world.

My original goal was to sculpt at the scale of the city, as a soft counterpoint to hard-edged buildings, while attaching exclusively to pre-existing buildings as if the sculpture were literally laced into the fabric of the city.

Den by Janet Echelman Photo © Peter Vanderwarker

1.26 Denver by Janet Echelman
Photo © Peter Vanderwarker

My first big hurdle was that the kind of computer software tools I needed to do this simply did not exist. Fortunately, a company that builds design tools (Autodesk) believed in my idea from the start, and their engineers dedicated two years to develop the tool we needed.

Another hurdle was convincing tall buildings to let me attach to their roofs. Just hoisting this 745-foot sculpture into the air in the midst of an active city seemed impossible. It was like a dream when our team worked through the night to gently lift it over bus shelters and trees to alight above water, plaza, and street.

I’ve been getting feedback that my sculptures get people to stop and look up, and slow down for a moment to contemplate amidst their busy lives, and begin a conversation about it with people they don’t know. I seek to engage in people’s regular life, and in ordinary places in cities that make up the texture of our lives. It’s incredibly rewarding.

Den by Janet Echelman Photo © Sarah Rothwell

1.26 Denver by Janet Echelman
Photo © Sarah Rothwell

CBK: You started out as a painter. From a normal size canvas to enormous mega ton sculptures is quite a leap – artistically, and scale-wise. Was the journey bumpy or smooth?

Bumpy. I went from a very personal medium that I could control by myself, to one that requires so many types of expertise and has to infuse with the space and culture of where it is installed – not your typical artist trajectory!

The idea of creating an expressive gesture is still central to my work. But instead of creating a paint stroke with a brush on a canvas, now I’m making an urban gesture with my sculpture – at the scale of the city.

Working at this size means I simply can’t do everything myself. To create these sculptures, my studio works with a wide range of engineers, designers, computer scientists, and architects. It’s such a collaborative, iterative process.

SYD by Janet Echelman Photo © Jaime Looten

1.26 Sydney by Janet Echelman
Photo © Jaime Looten

CBK: Explain how birds and other wildlife are kept safe from being harmed or entrapped by the sculptures.

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 to us how the physical qualities of our nets don’t meet the criteria that would endanger birds and other wildlife. We’ve heard of an occasional soccer ball getting into one of our sculptures, but it came out through the openings in the net.

Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks by Janet Echelman
Photo © Ema Peter

CBK: What happens to the temporary sculptures when they are taken down?

My focus right now is to bring my artwork around the world – to transform our hard-edged cities with soft, organic forms to create spaces which foster calm and contemplation. To do this, I’m using lightweight structural strategies to create a new kind of artwork that can easily attach to the top of existing buildings, to traverse urban airspace and safely float above roads and public plazas. Because of their lightweight, flexible nature, they compress to a simple, relatively small box that is shipped from one city to the next.

Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks by Janet Echelman
Photo © Ema Peter

I’ve been working on a series the past four years called “1.26”, which is a traveling piece that has debuted on four continents. It premiered in 2010 at the Biennial of the Americas, then traveled to Sydney, Australia, then to Amsterdam, an this year to Singapore. It’s made of soft, ultra-lightweight fibers that are fifteen times stronger than steel, pound for pound. This new fiber enabled it to be so light that it can literally lace into the structure of the city.

Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks by Janet Echelman
Photo © Ema Peter

The title refers to the 1.26-microsecond shortening of the day that resulted from the 2010 Chile earthquake’s ensuing tsunami and the redistribution of Earth’s mass. The work underscores the interdependence of the earth’s systems and the global community. It asks the viewer to pause and consider the larger fabric of which they are a part.

CBK: Oprah ranked your work on her list of “50 Things That Make you Say WOW”. What makes you say wow?

I look the little “wows” that are all around us. In particular, the design of life, from the molecular level to the way life forms have evolved in response to changing conditions. I think this ability to adapt with resiliency is at the core of my artwork. I also see it as a quality which living in our time requires.

Janet Echelman Photo © Todd Erickson

Janet Echelman
Photo © Todd Erickson

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One Response to “The First Lady of Light Sculpture”

  1. Marriott Little says:

    These are gorgeous creations, inspirational and inspiring!