Janet Echelman, like many famous artists, began her work slowly. After being denied by all seven art schools to which she applied, she travelled to India to teach painting and create exhibitions for the United States embassy. By a cosmic twist of fate, her paints — devastatingly —did not arrive with her. Without her materials, Echelman was forced to find inspiration in the most unlikely of places: the fishermen and their nets strewn across the beach. At her sculptural inception, she says, “I searched for beauty in the traditional things, in craft forms.” Her first masterpiece, created out of fishing nets, made her discover “their soft surfaces revealed every ripple of wind in constantly changing patterns.” She was mesmerized.
In order to achieve such volumetric form, however, Echelman needed assistance. Her artwork required an understanding of engineering, so she began to collaborate with aerospace engineers, mechanical engineers, architects, lighting designers and landscape designers. Working particularly closely with Autodesk, a leading design software company, Echelman was able to construct a 3D model of her proposed work, allowing her to understand scientific constraints such as her materials' response to gravity and wind.
Echelman doesn’t see her need for collaboration as a setback; instead, she describes public art as a team sport. She says, “Being able to work with so many talented individuals expands the language with which I can speak as an artist. I am always learning from my colleagues, and what we create together is definitely greater than what I could create myself.” Her dedication to collaboration isn’t only limited to people, however. She views nature as a living entity with which she interacts and constantly draws inspiration from her daily surroundings. She leaves her projects at the mercy of the wind, allowing nature to choreograph her art. "I love that it is beyond my control, and much greater than anything I could ever create.”
The ultimate beauty of Echelman’s art is its function in our daily lives. With exhibits installed in many major cities, her stunning artwork infiltrates and counteracts urban mundanity. The gentle flow and constant movement juxtapose the hard edges of buildings, offering “proof that we can interrogate the status quo.” Echelman firmly believes that we have the ability to beautify our worlds. She offers one final thought: “I feel a need to find moments of contemplation in the midst of daily city life. If my art can create an opportunity to contemplate the larger cycles of time and remind us to listen to our inner selves, I believe this could be transformative.”