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Janet S. Echelman Talks Light and Color at Boston Design Week

Echelman Image
Janet S. Echelman '87's large scale artwork is inspired by fishing nets and colorful lighting.

At this year’s Boston Design Week, sculptor Janet S. Echelman ’87 elucidated the evolution of her colorful, massive public art pieces, from her experience working with paint to fishing nets. Echelman’s presentation, titled “Radical Design: Illuminating Cities through Public Art,” took place at the Boston Design Center on April 4. Sponsors Design Lighting Forum (DLF) and The Illuminating Engineering Society of North America (IES), whose websites state that their missions are to educate the community about lighting design, collaborated to host the event.

Boston Design Week is a 12-day festival dedicated to the celebration of diverse categories of design. This year, multiple events ran every day from March 27 to April 7. The festival included programs ranging from sustainable design initiatives, to behind-the-scenes looks at exhibitions in the greater Boston area, to discussions of the synergy between design and the human experience.

Echelman began her presentation with a look into her artistic past. Before she started sculpting building-sized nets, Echelman graduated Harvard setting out to be a painter. Her work started gaining recognition, and in 1997, she moved to India on a Fulbright lectureship to exhibit her paintings. Amidst travel frenzy, her painting supplies never arrived. She had to find a new medium.

Echelman was walking along the beach in the fishing town she was based in when suddenly the fishing nets she had seen cast so many times before caught her interest. Intrigued by their free-flowing qualities, Echelman began her long journey in creating with nets.

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Because Echelman was entering the uncharted territory of netting as an artistic medium, she has become one of the first to engineer this material. Her determination and drive for creating works that represent her vision have resulted in collaborations with aeronautical engineers, software designers, and even the director of Google’s Creative Lab.

In her talk, Echelman also addressed her work’s sheer size. “The scale is so large that I can never see the actual, physical work until we install it. In the factory, we’re making 10, 50, 100 feet at a time, but never can we stretch out 750 feet,” she said. “There’s this nervousness until we unfurl it and pull it into place, and then a moment of, ‘Ah! It’s there!’ I wish it got easier, but I still feel it every single project.”

During the presentation, Janet noted that when challenges present themselves, she goes into “research mode.” As such, scientific data or historical landscapes tend to inspire her pieces. At the same time, she emphasized that despite having concrete concepts behind her work, she hopes that her pieces can stand alone without any context so that anyone can enjoy them.

“My work is experiential, so you are the expert of your experience. No one can tell you how you should feel or think about the work. You are an integral part of it,” she said. “Any human being can understand this work in their own way. That’s exciting to me.”

Since Janet designs many of her creations for outdoor, public displays, part of her mission in creating art roots itself in strengthening the connections between cities and their populations. She said, “My form is not about work in a studio — it’s about an interaction with the city and with each person within it.”

This philosophy comes to life literally with several of her pieces, such as in Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks in Vancouver, or 1.8 in London. The colorful lights projected upon her nets take on a new, interactive ability. People have the opportunity to pick and choose what colors they want to see on their smartphones and watch the work morph in real time. “I believe that the public complete this art,” she said.

Todd Lee ’74, a friend of Echelman’s through Harvard’s Loeb Fellowships, was in attendance for the event. “I was astonished at her energy, bravery, and willingness to think about lighting in new ways, and about sculpture in new ways, and about the environment and how people react to what they see and feel,” he said of Echelman.

“All kinds of people are enjoying it and getting down to something rich inside themselves,” Lee added. “People come out and go to it. They are drawn to them, day and night.”

Sara J. Schonour, president of DLF, and Susan J. Arnold, president of IES, further discussed how Echelman has illuminated the importance and potential of lighting. Schonour said, “You don’t think about [lighting] unless someone calls your attention to it. I think someone like Janet calls your attention to things that you otherwise might not realize.”

Arnold agreed – Echelman’s work causes people to look up. “Everybody now is looking down at their phones,” she said. “Just have a moment! Count to five, take a breath, sit back, and put your phone down. Just enjoy the moment and let the magic happen naturally.”

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