Making an Impact: Janet Echelman

By Julie Garisto, AliveTampaBay Correspondent

Tampa Bay Businesses for Culture & the Arts is a nonprofit organization that bridges merchants, entrepreneurs and corporations with artists and arts institutions to build thriving communities. Each year, the organization’s Impact Awards honor men and women who have gone above and beyond to support local arts and culture. Honorees are commemorated in four categories: the Patron of Culture & the Arts Impact Award, Business Impact Award, Individual Impact Award and International Artistic Achievement Award. This year’s Impact Awards were given out at a dinner gala at the Mahaffey on Thursday, Oct. 20. Visit tbbca.org for details.

Artist Janet Echelman reaches above and beyond — quite literally in most ways.

The Tampa-bred artist’s aerial sculptures elicit a sense of wonder as they hover 100-plus feet high with fluid lifelike movement.

Spectators have said they feel like they get lost in her works, which Echelman has constructed with durable fibers specially engineered to be lightweight and responsive to the elements. She has perched her works above 36 cities in four continents.

Echelman’s accomplishments and multiple awards attracted the attention of city officials like St. Petersburg Mayor Rick Kriseman, who honored her with the key to the city last night during the TBBCA 2016 Impact Awards Ceremony at the Mahafey Theater.

The event hosted by the Tampa Bay Businesses for Culture and the Arts also saluted Echelman with an Impact Award for International Artistic Achievement.

Echelman’s path to world renown is as fascinating as her lofty marvels. She went from graduating Harvard to enduring the rejection of seven art schools to studying in China to working full-time as a painter who sold works to famed artist Robert Rauschenberg.

After her home burnt down in Bali, Echelman taught at Harvard and later won a Fulbright Lectureship in India. When her paints didn’t arrive, Echelman shifted her focus to sculpture, but the bronze forms of Eastern India didn’t spark her imagination. Instead, she found inspiration observing fishermen working on their nets. From there, she forged an exciting career marrying ancient craft with high-tech innovation.

In 2001, Echelman gave a TedTalk in Vancouver titled “Taking Imagination Seriously,” which now has more than 1.6 million views and has been translated in 34 different languages.

Her more recent works include the massive “Where We Met,” erected in downtown Greensboro, N.C. The sculpture consists of 35 miles of technical fibers crafted into 242,800 knots to form a canopy of color hovering 200 feet above the new LeBauer City Park.

Echelman’s 2015 installation in the Smithsonian American Art Museum, called “1.8 Renwick,” captured First Lady Michelle Obama in a moment of awestruck wonder. The title 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, which hit Japan with devastating effects. (See more of Echelman’s portfolio here.)

AliveTampaBay caught up with Echelman for an in-depth conversation online before her recent visit to Tampa Bay.

AliveTampaBay: Recurring themes in your success story include an openness to new ideas, collaborations and perseverance. Are those values you harnessed on your own, or were they instilled by your parents?

Janet Echelman: I see public art as a “team sport.” Collaboration has always been central to my work, and I love the fact that I can learn from so many people and create something together that is greater than what I could do alone. I collaborate with architects in my studio, and we collaborate with aeronautical and mechanical engineers, computer scientists, lighting designers, industrial and handcraft fabricators, and material scientists.

I credit my family and my teachers for whatever I have been able to do. They’ve influenced my ability to be an artist, and also the additional set of skills I’ve needed to bring my ideas to reality. I’ve spoken about how my mom was the central role model in my life. Not only as an artist and creator, but also as a strong person who overcame hardship and flourished. In her 40s, as a mother of four who was newly divorced, she had to reinvent her life and support her children. She started a business with my aunt and grew it from one store into five of designer dress boutiques. My uncle Murray Garrett grew a business from one to more than 40 stores.

So coming from a family of entrepreneurs communicated something important about believing you can start something, and I see my current work as both an art practice and a form of cultural entrepreneurship. I remember as a child how patiently my uncle Murray, a founder of the Colony Shops, answered my endless questions about how his business worked. My mom and her sister then went on to open designer dress boutiques called the Boulevard Shops. When they answered my questions, they were letting me know that they took me seriously. And that taught me to take my own ideas seriously. I think one of the hardest things for an artist is to take one’s own ideas seriously, to stop self-censoring long enough to let ideas grow to maturity. And this I learned from my family.

ATB: What inspires you in the naming of your most life-changing works?

JE: I usually can’t name an artwork until I meet it. When I arrived in Portugal, I still didn’t know the name of the sculpture. But, once we attached the 40,000 square-foot net to the armature and I saw its dynamic gentle movement against the sky, I knew that its name should be “She Changes.” For Boston, I also couldn’t name the sculpture until the morning it was raised up between the skyscrapers with the cranes below, and while talking to people I realized its name must be “As If It Were Already Here.” Sometimes the titles are inspired by writers or poets. Phoenix’s title, “Her Secret is Patience,” comes from Emerson, and the title for Vancouver, “Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks,” comes from Shakespeare.

Was it scary or intimidating to collaborate with engineers and take on a high-tech approach to your materials?

Yes! It has been absolutely terrifying at each step, as I take on more challenges. I remember the first big commission was for Portugal. They asked if I could turn my hand-made temporary art installations into a permanent public sculpture, and even though I had no idea how to do it, I said yes. I didn’t fully understand how difficult the challenge would be, but we began tackling the challenges one by one. And this continues today, as I continue to grapple with extending my materials to make more complex sculptural forms, at larger scales to stretch between skyscrapers, and to withstand harsher climates.  It was definitely a new approach, and testing new waters and taking bigger risks can be scary, but they have the potential for greater results, and I saw this as a necessary step to achieve my goal — to sculpt at the scale of the city, as a soft counterpoint to hard-edged buildings, while attaching exclusively to preexisting buildings as if the sculpture were literally laced into the fabric of the city. Also, I approach technology with curiosity. I see it as a tool for expression — whether it’s industrial technology, post-industrial digital technology, or even new tools being created right now that enable me to create works I never could have before. My studio has been collaborating the past four years with Autodesk, the world’s leading design software company, to build a custom software tool that allows us to model our monumental designs using the constraints of our craft, while showing response to the forces of gravity and wind. We now use this tool to assist with designing all my city-scaled artworks.

ATB: What are some of the artistic challenges you encounter in these large-scale endeavors, and what advice would you give artists to keep up their creative momentum?

JE: To keep expanding my ideas and forms. You would think it gets easier, but each time I start I am filled with terror that I won’t be able to find the idea and create the artwork that fulfills the needs of the site. The only secret is that I don’t give up, and just keep taking apart the problems and brainstorming ways to address the constraints of the site. At college graduation when I first announced to parents that I’d decided to become an artist, I remember my parents’ response. My father’s first question was whether any of my professors had said I was talented and should pursue this. The answer was no, it’s just that it was the only thing I truly wanted to do. When I told my mom I wanted to be a painter, she said that was a worthy goal and that I should make 99 more paintings, and gave me $200 to buy paint. That turns out to be important advice that I continue to use today. Iterations, and not expecting every utterance to be good. I don’t judge the bad ones, I just move on, and I think this is the most important advice I’d like to share with others.

Please talk a little about your experiences as an artist growing up in the Tampa Bay area. What neighborhood did you grow up in?

I grew up on Davis Islands, and have vivid memories of walking to the yellow school bus that took me to Gorie Elementary, Woodrow Wilson and Plant High School. From second grade, I had a few very formative experiences at Independent Day School, a funky little school where we had no classes and had a weekly meeting with the teacher to make a contract for the work we would do learning on our own. That taught me the skills of independent learning which I need and use every day in my life as an artist. I have to select my goals and painstakingly address each hurdle in order to make my imagined designs a reality.

Did you have a mentor or an art teacher here who inspired you? What did you daydream about as a child?

My mom was my original role model for a creative artist. From age 5, I was her assistant when she taught macramé and other crafts to kids and community groups. She told me that the most interesting creative zones were in between fields. She had started as a painter and had become a silversmith who was experimenting with photo engraving on metals.  The idea of exploring the spaces in between fields continues to inspire me, and I feel my work transgresses the boundaries between sculpture, architecture, engineering and urban space-making.

Hypothetical scenario: You’re home in Brookline, Mass., and have visitors from out of town for one day — last-minute notice. Where do you take them?

I would take them home of course! I’d first take you to visit my studio, which is a building right beside my century-old Victorian house. If we’re lucky, my husband might fire up our brick oven to 800 degrees and make us some pizza. Or if we’re feeling tired, we’ll invite you to select your preferred take-out menu. I like living in an urban neighborhood (Coolidge Corner) because I can walk one  block in any direction to , we’ve got Thai, Indian, Mexican, Seafood, bagel shop, and grocery, plus the hardware store). After dinner we’ll probably want to walk up the street to J.P. Licks ice cream, browse the Brookline Booksmith, and maybe catch a flick at the historic Coolidge Corner Cinema (which reminds me of the Tampa Theater, only with painted ceilings instead of the glowing sky). Of course we could visit the Museum of Fine Arts Boston or take the corner bike-share to Harvard Square and see the American Repertory Theater, but most likely we’d just stay walking within the ‘hood.

Julie Garisto is a correspondent for AliveTampaBay.

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