Janet Echelman: How Did A Mishap Lead To An Artist's Best Work? Sculptor Janet Echelman found her voice as an artist when her paints went missing — which forced her to look to an unorthodox new art material.
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How Did A Mishap Lead To An Artist's Best Work?

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How Did A Mishap Lead To An Artist's Best Work?

How Did A Mishap Lead To An Artist's Best Work?

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So if, as Rich Benjamin experienced, human adaptation can be complicated, imagine trying to get an inanimate object to adapt. For Janet Echelman, her entire work is dependent on the adaptability of her medium. Janet's an artist and mainly a sculptor, but not the kinds of things carved from stone or cast in metal that sit on pedestals in museums. Janet's work is mounted high above the ground.

JANET ECHELMAN: First of all, there's no pedestal.

RAZ: (Laughter).

ECHELMAN: They're floating works. They all are suspended from above, and they're soft. And I think that's important. They adapt to the environment around them.

There was a big storm in Denver when my sculpture was there. The street lamp beneath it was felled by the strength of the wind.

RAZ: Wow.

ECHELMAN: And my sculpture was completely unscathed. The sculpture has this - it's a way of being in the world, where you adapt and you let things flow through you but aren't pushed over by them.

RAZ: Janet's work is literally in the sky, and she sculpts with strands of fiber. And it looks a little like knitting, except shaped and designed to take on a form. And these giant sculptures are installed in the empty spaces between buildings or hung above city plazas.

ECHELMAN: And they're layers of translucent, colored material that changes with changing patterns of light in the day and the night, and every gust of wind sends a ripple effect through the work. So I want the sculpture to always be changing and evolving and revealing something new. They're very sort of delicate and ephemeral. And in a way, I just create a structure and then the changing forces of nature adapt the form and create all of this variety and endless discovery.

RAZ: And even though these sculptures are flowing and billowing, the form is entirely adaptable to weather, to light and to different public urban spaces. But the idea itself, to create pieces out of soft fibers, also came out of a very real artistic adaptation. It's a story Janet told on the TED stage.


ECHELMAN: Fourteen years ago, I first encountered this ordinary material fishnet, used the same ways for centuries. I never studied sculpture, engineering or architecture. In fact, after college, I applied to seven art schools and was rejected by all seven. I went off on my own to become an artist, and I painted for 10 years when I was offered a Fulbright to India. Promising to give exhibitions of paintings, I shipped my paints and arrived in Mahabalipuram. The deadline for the show arrived. My paints didn't. I had to do something. This fishing village was famous for sculpture. So I tried bronze casting, but to make large forms was too heavy and expensive. I went for a walk on the beach, watching the fisherman bundle their nets into mounds on the sand. I'd seen it every day, but this time I saw it differently - a new approach to sculpture, a way to make volumetric form without heavy, solid materials. I discovered their soft surfaces revealed every ripple of wind in constantly changing patterns. I was mesmerized. My first satisfying sculpture was made in collaboration with these fishermen. It's a self-portrait titled "Wide Hips."


RAZ: I guess we should describe this self-portrait "Wide Hips" because, to me, it looks like an upside-down parachute. How would you describe it?

ECHELMAN: Well, I was sleeping under mosquito nets, so there's a white, cone-like form...

RAZ: Ah, yeah.

ECHELMAN: ...That is my mosquito net.

RAZ: Yeah, that's right. It's exactly what it is. Yeah.

ECHELMAN: Yeah, it's been cut into panels and sewn. Beneath it is almost like a bowl-like form of hand-knotted netting, and up the center, the netting continues up to the top.

RAZ: It's amazing because, like, you go there. Everything kind of falls to pieces. You had to adapt to the situation, and then you found this material. And this changes your life.

ECHELMAN: Yeah, that's true. The thing about that experience of having to adapt in the moment with what's there is that it happens to me all the time. It's not that it just happened once at the beginning of my sort of birth as a sculptor, and that's how I keep my own practice alive. That's what makes me excited to wake up and walk into the studio...

RAZ: Yeah.

ECHELMAN: ...Is that each project is a new set of constraints, and I'm going to find some new solution that I don't yet know.

RAZ: The first sculptures Janet produced in India - the ones made out of fishnets - they were pretty small.

ECHELMAN: But it's - they were small when I made them, but I wished they were immense.

RAZ: And so when her first big commission came in to create a permanent sculpture over a large traffic circle in the coastal city of Porto in Portugal, Janet had to adapt her artwork to a massive scale.


ECHELMAN: For two years, I searched for a fiber that could survive ultraviolet rays, salt air, pollution, and at the same time, remain soft enough to move fluidly in the wind. We had to engineer it to move gracefully in an average breeze and survive in hurricane winds. I found a brilliant aeronautical engineer who designed sails for America's Cup racing yachts named Peter Heppel. He helped me tackle the twin challenges of precise shape and gentle movement. I couldn't build this the way I knew because hand-tied knots weren't going to withstand a hurricane. So I developed a relationship with an industrial fishnet factory, learned the variables of their machines and figured out a way to make lace with them. Three years and two children later...


ECHELMAN: ...I walked underneath it for the first time. As I watched the wind's choreography unfold, I felt sheltered, and at the same time, connected to limitless sky. My life was not going to be the same.

RAZ: When people, you know, are there in Porto or, you know, or in other cities where you have artwork and they're standing underneath your sculptures and just, like, looking up at them, like, what do you hope they feel?

ECHELMAN: It's like an invitation for a moment to just look up and notice the patterns of the world around us. In a way, my work has many levels of meaning, but you don't need any of them. You just need to be underneath it and to physically experience what it's like to be underneath it.

RAZ: Yeah.

ECHELMAN: There's something that I can't describe in words because it's preverbal. It's like a memory of being a really small child, and the world is above you and soft and gentle and flowing, you know, like, my mother's skirts flowing in the wind.

RAZ: Yeah. Did you remember when you were a kid, like, go crawling under and inside her (laughter) skirt? Like, I remember, like, as it, maybe, I was 3 or 4 years old, like, hiding in there.

ECHELMAN: (Laughter) I also used to build forts out of sheets and blankets.

RAZ: Yeah, oh, and chairs, yeah.

ECHELMAN: Yeah. And, like, tuck them under chairs and under - so it's that kind of feeling, where the world is big and safe.

RAZ: Artist and sculpture artist and sculptor, Janet Echelman. You can see some of her work and her TED Talk at ted.npr.org.


THE TRIFFIDS: (Singing) You've got to be adaptable, adaptable, if you're going to make the sun shine. You've got to be adaptable, adaptable. You're going to make me feel fine. That's the way things work around you.

RAZ: Hey, thanks for listening to our show and adaptation this week. If you want to find out more about who was on it, you can go to ted.npr.org. To see hundreds more TED Talks, check out ted.com. Our production staff at NPR includes Jeff Rogers, Brent Baughman, Meghan Keane, Neva Grant, Sanaz Meshkinpour and Casey Herman, with help from Daniel Shukhin. Our partners at TED are Chris Anderson, June Cohen, Deron Triff and Janet Lee. If you want to let us know what you think about the show, you can write us at TEDradiohour@npr.org. And you can follow us on Twitter. It's @tedradiohour. I'm Guy Raz, and you've been listening to ideas worth spreading, right here on the TED Radio Hour from NPR.


THE TRIFFIDS: (Singing) You've got to be adaptable, adaptable. You're going to make the sun shine. You've got to be adaptable, adaptable if you're going to make me feel fine...

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