When Dazzling Art Transforms the Cityscape

Janet Echelman’s sky-high sculptures, created from miles of fiber, cast a magical spell over urban spaces

Echelman describes her work as “mediating places” between people and cities. She favors busy locations for her projects, such as traffic circles and transit hubs. Reed Young
Boston-based artist Janet Echelman creates rope sculptures the size of buildings. She begins her process by painting potential designs on paper. Reed Young
At a studio in the Brookline suburb of Boston, Echelman and her team create models, which hang around the room like colorful spiderwebs. Reed Young
“I don’t take on a project unless it requires me to push the boundaries of my art,” says Echelman, 48. Her projects all tend to incorporate new elements. Reed Young
For Impatient Optimist, Echelman wanted to give physical form to the mission of the Gates Foundation. Progress is on schedule, her studio manager says, and they hope to install the sculpture early next year. It will be there permanently. Studio Echelman
Echelman and her team use computers to virtually drape designs over 3-D images of city neighborhoods. She enlists the help of engineers to get her projects off the ground. Reed Young
Samples of twine cover the walls of Echelman’s studio. For her sculptures, she uses a modern polyethylene fiber that’s stronger than steel. Reed Young
The Vancouver installation spanned 745 feet and used 145 miles of twine. Echelman says it’s “not only a work of art, but of engineering.” Studio Echelman
Pulse will open near Philadelphia’s City Hall this spring. Echelman describes the glowing mist as “a live X-ray of the inner workings of a city.” Studio Echelman
“People assume the city is unfolding as it must,” Echelman says. “But we have the ability to create a different environment. If that can be different, what else can be different?” Studio Echelman
For the 30th anniversary TED conference in Vancouver last March, Echelman created Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks, her largest sculpture yet. Studio Echelman
The Vancouver installation came alive at night; digital media artist Aaron Koblin created an interactive lighting element that passersby could control with their smartphones. Studio Echelman
For Pulse, another upcoming project, Echelman is breaking from her usual rope material and using glowing mist to trace the movement of the subway below. Studio Echelman
Echelman is currently working on Impatient Optimist, a sculpture for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in Seattle. She installed a prototype there in October 2013. Studio Echelman

“When I’m surrounded by concrete buildings like tall industrial boxes, my own physical presence feels so completely displaced,” says Janet Echelman. Her solution: huge, sinuous fiber sculptures strung between buildings high above the ground to serve as a “mediating piece,” she says, between us and our alienating urban spaces. The artist, 48, combines an ancient technology—knots—with modern polyethylene fiber that’s stronger than steel and dazzling computer-controlled lighting.

Echelman, a painter, turned to sculpture in 1997 when she traveled to India and her paints were lost in transit; she began making shapes with local fishermen’s nets. She has won renown for some 35 major projects in cities from Santa Monica to Singapore.

“I don’t take on a project unless it requires me to push the boundaries of my art,” Echelman says. In her studio, behind her house in the Boston suburb of Brookline, she often first plots out a project in paint. As it takes shape, designers in her studio use computers to virtually drape forms over 3-D images of city neighborhoods.

When Dazzling Art Transforms the Cityscape
Reed Young

With Impatient Optimist (above, a prototype in testing, October 2013), Echelman sought to give physical form to the humanitarian mission of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation; the work will be permanently installed on the foundation’s Seattle campus in early 2015. 

When Dazzling Art Transforms the Cityscape
Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks. Studio Echelman

Engineers help her design sculptures that can support their own weight and withstand local wind forces. Skies Painted with Unnumbered Sparks, suspended above Vancouver last March for the 30th-anniversary TED conference, was Echelman’s largest project to date, spanning 745 feet and using 145 miles of twine; a system created by artist Aaron Koblin allowed nighttime viewers to change the lighting with their mobile devices.

When Dazzling Art Transforms the Cityscape
Impatient Optimist Studio Echelman

Coming in spring is Pulse, in Philadelphia, which she describes as “a live X-ray of the inner workings of a city.” That project, embedded in a plaza next to City Hall, will emit glowing curtains of mist tracing the movement of three subway lines underground. “People assume the city is unfolding as it must,” says Echelman. “But we have the ability to create a different environment. If that can be different, what else can be different?” 

When Dazzling Art Transforms the Cityscape
Echelman working in her studio. Reed Young