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5 QUESTIONS: Janet Echelman

Suspended 365 feet above the Rose F. Kennedy Greenway, Brookline-based sculptor Janet Echelman’s As If It Were Already Here shimmies over a space where six lanes of highway once bifurcated the waterfront neighborhood. Indeed, its billowy colored bands pay homage to those pre–Big Dig ribbons of traffic, just as the sculpture’s three voids nod to Boston’s early history, when it was called “Trimountain” for the three hills around which the settlement was built. With its 100 miles of twine and a half-million knots, the weblike mesh is tethered between three skyscrapers along Atlantic Avenue in concert with the effects of wind and weather. Echelman’s creation, which will remain up through October, is at once delicate yet resilient, a fitting manifestation of the experience of contemporary urban life.

Tell me about your favorite childhood toy or hobby.

I grew up in central Florida. I played classical piano, and Bach was my favorite. You can see that in my work — the counterpoint and structure and interplay among multiple voices, the tension and release of harmonics. In terms of play, it was my front yard; I would pick parts of bushes and flowers and make up fantasy scenarios. It was unstructured. There was no particular toy: just pieces of string, leaves, lizards, and the shrubbery. I had three older brothers whom I looked up to. I loved being their toy.

Of all the cities you’ve worked in, which one best celebrates public art in civic spaces and why?

People have expressed their past frustrations with public art in Boston. But the experience on the Greenway has been so rewarding, the sense of it bringing people together from different parts of the city, surrounding areas, and visitors from other countries. What interests me is how rapidly a space can change its meaning and how the way we use it can transform. Cranes arrived at 3 a.m. for the installation, and by 11 a.m., people were lying on the grass beneath it, having lunch and conversations. This —  sharing a response to wonder — feels like a turning point. It was shocking in the most wonderful way. It feels like a greater meaning to the work because we are defining what our identity as a city can be. That it has sparked a conversation, one shared among strangers, is an authentic communal experience. If we can do this, we are capable of many things we have not yet unveiled.

You’ve said that the way fishermen in Mahabalipuram, a village in India, bundled their nets inspired your foray into netted sculpture. Describe that moment.

I was waiting for my paints to arrive and they never did, so I started learning to cast bronze — the village is known for bronze casting — but didn’t have the ability to express the gesture I wanted at the larger scale to fill galleries. I went for a walk on the beach, saw the mounds of nets there, and it occurred to me that it was another way to create volumetric form without heavy, solid material. I made little sketches, and my bronze-casting mentor came with me to talk to the fishermen to see if they’d knot these forms I was drawing, with twine. I took my mosquito net from where I was living and went to a tailor; we joined the mosquito netting with the hand-knotted fishing net and created a self-portrait — my first sculpture — called “Wide Hips.” We lifted it onto poles on the beach, and I discovered that the wind gave it a breath of life. The scale of the work transforms the way we see air currents. Think of a small flag chopping in the wind versus a large, billowing sail.

From conception to installation, As If It Were Already Here is quite a feat. Any surprises or delights along the way?

How different it appears in changing weather and light. In the rain, it almost disappears, like a ghost; in sunlight, it’s about the way the colors glow. The quality of light in the middle of a dense downtown is unique because the highway created a volume of air that allows for sunlight the way few cities have. But the nighttime illumination —  pulsing slowly from vibrant oranges and pinks to muted blues — is when it comes alive as an illuminated beacon. Still, that dance with sunlight is extraordinary, and it’s my favorite daylight piece of any sculpture I’ve created. Another delight is the dialogue with traffic and pedestrians, and what people are saying to me, that they walk to see the sculpture every day, that it makes them feel safer, which is not something I expected and makes me wonder: What is it that creates a sense of safety and comfort? When I lie down on the grass and look up, it’s as if the sky is breathing.

TED Talk

Janet Echelman:
imagination seriously

What inspires you today?

During my childhood, I was inspired by playing with a piece of string and its transformation into a cat’s cradle. My upcoming commission on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood is based on a childhood dream catcher. These days I’m mesmerized by the fluid dynamics I observe in water and in air — and the transformative potential of humble materials and methods — as I braid fiber into twine, knot twine into mesh, splice ropes into architecture, and become a part of our city’s urban fabric.