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Artist Profile: Janet Echelman – Sculpting Volume Without Weight

In this special Artist Profile story, Akiko Ashley talks to TED speaker and acclaimed artist Janet Echelman about her remarkable work, creating engaging visual and interactive large scale urban and architectural artistic installations throughout the world

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AA (Akiko Ashley): What tools are used? Is it a combination of traditional techniques and digital? Do you use a PC or Mac, and which software do you run?

JE (Janet Echelman): When I began making my netted sculptures, they were fabricated completely by hand. All of my recent works are a combination of machine and handwork. My studio uses handwork to create unusual, irregular shapes and joints, and to make lace patterns within the sculpture. We utilize machines for making rectangular and trapezoidal panels with stronger, machine-tightened knots that can withstand intense winds, and the heavy weight of snow and ice storms.


After researching the location and drafting the design, I work with engineers and architects in our studio to transform my simple sketches into scale 3D forms within a larger 3D site model. We’re in the midst of collaboration with the design software company Autodesk, who have been developing a tool that enables us to design textile nets and exert the forces of gravity and wind on them. It’s so exciting for me as an artist to be able to draw out textile forms and very quickly understand how they will drape. With this new tool, the computer is giving me feedback in real time that informs my design decisions–it’s pretty great. We work with both Macs and PCs. A few of the packages we use are Adobe Photoshop, Rhino, and the tool from Autodesk.


For Water Sky Garden at the Richmond Olympic Oval, which premiered at the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, I collaborated with engineers to prepare for the possibility of severe wind and ice storms. We calculated the size of the openings to allow snow to fall through. My outdoor nets are engineered to withstand hurricane force winds of 90 mph using proprietary aeronautical computer software written specifically for my work. Once we’ve ensured the integrity of the structure, we work with professional fabricators to turn my idea into a physical reality. I have great respect for the craftsmanship of our industrial workers. (see image 03)

03 - Echelman's "Water Sky Garden" at the Richmond Olympic Oval, Vancouver Winter Olympics. (photo by Christina Lazar Schuler. All rights reserved)

03 – Echelman’s “Water Sky Garden” at the Richmond Olympic Oval, Vancouver Winter Olympics. (photo by Christina Lazar Schuler. All rights reserved)

AA:  Is there a special tool you use that you think is the key to your work?

JE:  There isn’t any single key to making my sculptures happen. It’s the collaboration and combination of resources and efforts that makes it possible.

To realize each project, I am constantly collaborating with talented architects, engineers, urban planners, lighting designers, and computer scientists. It expands the language with which I can speak as an artist. I am always learning from them, and it creates something greater than the sum of its parts.

AA: I was at the Glow Festival and saw “The Space Between Us”. Will we see this piece at a new location in the future? Who was involved in helping with the creation of “The Space Between Us”  in Santa Monica?

We certainly hope to see it in new locations. The sculpture is lightweight and is able to attach to existing architecture or to temporary supports, as we did for Santa Monica Beach. This makes it flexible in terms of where and how we install it, so it would work well in many locations. (see image 04)

04 - Echelman's "The Space Between Us" at the Santa Monica Glow Festival. (photography Alison Buck. All rights reserved).

04 – Echelman’s “The Space Between Us” at the Santa Monica Glow Festival. (photography Alison Buck. All rights reserved).

I was privileged to work with a great team of talented individuals for The Space Between Us. It wouldn’t have been possible without our Studio Echelman team: Melissa Henry, Daniel Zeese, Ben Winters, and Cam Chateauneuf.

The earthwork component was done by the OLIN Studio (Susan Weiler, Richard Roark, and Ben Monette,) with the help of the Santa Monica Department of Public Works (Paul Davis and staff.) Sound composers Daniel Rome and Zach Alterman created the sound piece, and James Schipper and Mark Flaisher of Kinetic Lighting prepared a beautiful lighting program in sync with the sound.

ARUP’s Clayton Binkley, Patrick McCafferty, and Simon Rees engineered the sculpture, and Branam Enterprises’ Eddie Diaz managed install. Time-lapse photography and documentation was done by the tireless Matthew Boyd and and Alison Buck.

To learn more about Janet Echelman’s work please visit her studio online here.

05 - Echelman's "1.26" installation here shown in Sydney, Australia. (photo by Janus vanden Eijinden. All rights reserved)

05 – Echelman’s “1.26” installation here shown in Sydney, Australia. (photo by Jamie Looten. All rights reserved)


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