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Breaking Down Boundaries with Art

By Kristi Highum

Janet Echelman aims high with her public artworks: “I’m working to change the way we feel when we walk in the city, and to create a moment of contemplation. It stretches across and between art, architecture, engineering, and urban design, and it seems to break down boundaries between people from different backgrounds.”

Today, you’ll find Echelman’s soaring sculptures in cities all over the world, but her path to this successful career had a few unexpected twists. When she applied to seven art schools, she was rejected by all of them. So she moved to Bali and created a life as an artist, studying craft traditions with local artisans to incorporate in her contemporary paintings. After a decade, she went to India to continue learning craft traditions. She secured a Fulbright to teach and exhibit her paintings throughout India, but when her paints didn’t arrive, she suddenly had to pivot.

“I saw the local fisherman rolling their nets into hovering mounds at the edge of the sea,” she recalls. “I thought, that’s another approach to creating volumetric form, without heavy, solid material.” And so Echelman began experimenting with netting and structure, working with fishermen and tailors to develop sculptural works that were hoisted on poles, where they would dance in the wind. “At the beginning I was making these crazy net sculptures. Nobody would pay for them,” she says. “I didn’t hang a lot of expectation on them; I just made them, because I wanted to make them, because I dreamed of being underneath them.” Eventually, the rest of the world came to appreciate Echelman’s vision.

This video interview with Janet Echelman will give you insight into the artist and how her fiber sculptures are created.

Click to watch a video that goes behind the scenes of Janet Echelman's captivating sculptures. 

Echelman and her studio team have created monumental, knotted net structures in Amsterdam, London, Porto, Prague, Singapore, Sydney, and Vancouver, and across the United States, from Boston and New York to Phoenix, San Francisco, and Seattle. Each design develops over many months in collaboration with aeronautical and structural engineers, computer scientists, and lighting designers — and then it takes another year of crafting to hand-splice, loom, and knot these immense fiber sculptures.

She notes, “I am keenly aware of how interconnected we are with one another and the world around us. Each of my sculptures is composed of hundreds of thousands of knotted intersections, and when a single knot is moved, every other one is affected. This art invites you to experience that — to take a moment to notice the world and its incredible beauty.”

Janet Echelman was one of many creative luminaries who spoke at 2016’s Adobe MAX. Visit the MAX website to watch recorded keynote presentations and conference sessions.