Taking Imagination Seriously – Janet Echelman visits SMOA

Janet Echelman is an artist who works mainly with commissioned pieces. She approaches her work as a challenge or problem to be solved and also says that she will only accept an invitation to create work if she feels it can truly better herself and the community that would interact with it.

Janet Echelman at SMOA (Photo Credit: Aleksandr V.Gleyzer, WSLR)

In addition to its fundraising efforts, the Sarasota Museum of Art continues its tradition of arts programming this year with ARTmuse – a series of invitational events for donors that offer talks and demonstrations by acclaimed visiting artists and curators.


by Jen Nugent

Janet Echelman is an artist who works mainly with commissioned pieces. She approaches her work as a challenge or problem to be solved and also says that she will only accept an invitation to create work if she feels it can truly better herself and the community that would interact with it. Her large outdoor sculptures “shape urban airspace, creating permanent, voluptuous, billowing forms, that are counterpoint to hard edged buildings in the urban environment.”

Janet Echelman at SMOA (Photo Credit: Aleksandr V.Gleyzer, WSLR)
Janet Echelman at SMOA (Photo Credit: Aleksandr V.Gleyzer, WSLR)

Echelman’s modest personality presents itself by way of her recollection of when a professor at Harvard had advised her not to pursue art. She claims that she was not what you would call a “talented artist.” Although later, she proudly admits that her first solo show was at the age of 23 and curated by none other than Robert Rauschenberg, who also bought three of her early paintings for his private collection.

Instead of attending graduate school, Echelman spend some years traveling throughout Asia and she spent some time in India on a Fulbright scholarship, which is where she first began working with netting. She was set to have a large painting exhibition, but her paints never arrived. Attracted to the fishing nets she watched on her evening walks, she enlisted the local fishermen to build a net in her desired shape. “In the worst moment of horrible pressure and anxiety, comes the moment of discovery”, she says. These early sculptures are of a more modest size than those adorning airports and cityscapes today. She also says that as she held them up with poles on the beach, “the wind (began) to interact with them and created a mesmerizing movement which I didn’t expect”, which consequently led her to installing them in the air.

Janet Echelman
Larry Thompson, Janet Echelman, Wendy Surkis (Photo Credit: Aleksandr V.Gleyzer, WSLR)

In 2010, Echelman was commissioned by the Biennial of the Americas to build a sculpture that could celebrate the “interconnectedness” of the 35 nations included in the Western Hemisphere. After seeing a video of the tsunami that occurred as a result of the earthquake in Chile, she realized that the “ripple” of the ocean connected not only the Western Hemisphere, but also the entire globe. The artist, along with a team of professionals, acquired data from both NASA and NOAA, built a 3D model of the tsunami and eventually translated the information into a unique “areal lace installation” that is currently traveling the world. The title “Tsunami 1.26” refers to the milliseconds lost in the rotation of the earth from the earthquake. Echelman also uses a fiber called Spectra®, which is actually a type of plastic that can act like a fiber so it retains the soft and fluid movement that attracts the artist, but is also stronger than steel and is resistant to moisture, salt and pollution. Apparently, these installations can survive both a blizzard and a hurricane.

Janet Echelman
(Photo Credit: Aleksandr V.Gleyzer, WSLR)

Janet Echelman is an internationally recognized Harvard graduate, a 2010-2011 recipient of the Guggenheim Fellowship in the Fine Arts, and recently gave a TED talk about her work. Echelman was invited to Sarasota to speak as part of a series of artist lectures at the future home of the Sarasota Museum of Art.

Watch Janet Echelman on TED Talks: http://www.ted.com/talks/janet_echelman.html.

You can also view more about her by visiting her website: http://www.echelman.com/