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Floating high in the sky and billowing at the mercy of the wind, Janet Echelman’s innovative new sculptures mark the beginning of a revolution against urban mundanity. Her artwork, based on intense collaboration with engineers, seemingly defies gravity and logic. Her flowing materials tower over the highest buildings, cloaking towns in the beauty of her swirling artwork. She’s dedicated to respecting nature and injecting its beauty into the world; describing the feelings of walking underneath her first sculpture for the first time, she says, “As I watched the wind’s choreography unfold, I felt sheltered, and at the same time, connected to limitless sky.”

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.”

Words
Mary Chamberlain Harlan
Photos
Ema Peter, Melissa Henry, Bruce Petschek, Nicole Wang, Janet Echelman, Peter Vanderwark, Janus van den Eijnden, Smithsonian Institute, Ben Visbeek, Joao Ferrand, Ulysse Lemerise, Jill Richards, David Feldman, Enrique Diaz, Sean Airhart, Bruce Damonte, Stuttgart Ballet, Marinco Kojdanovski

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