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She strings sculptures from the sky

Janet Echelman collaborates with architects, software developers, and aeronautical engineers to build her technological marvels.

By Tracy Staedter

Janet Echelman couldn’t sleep. The Boston-based artist, known for her enormous aerial net sculptures, was in the early stages of planning her next installation, a private commission for the 1 Hotel West Hollywood, then under construction on California’s famous Sunset Strip. Hollywood, she mused, was a place people went to fulfill their dreams of becoming movie stars. What were dreams, she wondered?

She rose from bed and opened her laptop. An internet search on “brainwaves during dreaming” turned up images and videos of electroencephalograms (EEGs), taken of people while they slept. One video in particular captivated her. It showed 3-D sine waves cresting and falling over the course of a night’s sleep. Splotches in greens, yellows, and reds changed over time, undulating between the person’s sleep cycles. It mesmerized Echelman. “When people hit deep sleep, REM sleep, the curves become much bigger and that was what inspired me,” she says.

A concept began to take shape. It became a piece with hourglass-like contours named “Dream Catcher,” after a Native American charm that Echelman had made as a child. Shaped like small racquets, dream catchers traditionally were hung over the cribs of sleeping babies to snare harm and nightmares.

Janet Echelman; top photo: “Dream Catcher”

Echelman’s “Dream Catcher” stands 100 feet tall by 110 feet wide, strung with vibrantly colored fibers and appearing to float between the 1 Hotel’s two towers. The combination of tension and draping forms in counterpoint with one another made it one of her more challenging installations, she says. A far cry from her first net sculptures, which were hand-tied by fishermen in India, “Dream Catcher” embodies Echelman’s desire to constantly push her work into new territory. She often collaborates with architects, city planners, software developers, lighting designers, and aeronautical and structural engineers to get there. Each new piece becomes a technological marvel that embodies its traditional origins. For “Dream Catcher,” that collaboration reached new heights, so to speak: The installation was planned alongside — and as intrinsic to — the very construction of the 1 Hotel itself.

Echelman, formerly a painter, began making net sculptures in 1997 on a Fulbright research trip to a coastal town in India. Her paints never showed up, so she took inspiration instead from the local fishermen’s nets. Since then, the award-winning artist has displayed more than 60 voluminous net sculptures around the world, from Boston to Beijing. The gigantic installations have ranged in size from 75 feet to 750 feet and usually span public spaces, connected to buildings by strong synthetic fiber ropes. Light, but large, they appear to drape from the sky. Their enormity and unexpected presence instill a sense of joy and awe, says Marc Pally, an artist and expert in public art who helped coordinate the selection and installation of “Dream Catcher.”

Echelman typically starts a project with a notion to do something new. That has meant designing custom software to model the sculptures in three dimensions and test how they respond to gravity. It has meant working with a roller-coaster firm to manufacture a giant metal ring from which she suspended a sculpture, as she did in 2009 for “Her Secret is Patience,” in Phoenix. It’s also meant discovering new materials to evolve her work even further. Ultra-strong, lightweight fibers made of polytetrafluoroethylene — also known as Teflon — make up the current iteration of her sculptural nets. Lightweight polyethylene — which has an ultra-high molecular weight and can bear more of a load with less material — makes up the suspension ropes, allowing her to do away with the metal ring altogether.

Although all of Echelman’s pieces are exquisitely planned, she was pleasantly surprised by the ways people interacted with her art.

It has meant incorporating audio and lighting, as she did in 2013 for “The Space Between Us,” an installation that premiered in Santa Monica Beach, California; or collaborating with a choreographer to merge a sculpture with dancers on a stage, as she did with the Stuttgart Ballet in Germany for the performance of “A Memory.”

Her most recent piece, “Bending Arc,” which went up this past July at a new waterfront pier in St. Petersburg, Florida, is the first permanent sculpture she’s designed to withstand a 155-mph wind load, the same threshold new buildings in the region must meet. The 424-foot-long piece had multiple inspirations: vintage postcards of striped beach parasols, the geometric forms of barnacles, and a series of civil-rights protests that occurred there in the 1950s. One such event centered on six African Americans who tried to buy tickets to swim in a public pool, but were turned away. They filed a lawsuit that eventually reached the U.S. Supreme Court, and they won. Echelman named her sculpture after a 1968 quote by Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

“Bending Arc” went up this past July at a new waterfront pier in St. Petersburg, Florida.

“For each commission I tried to do something new that I’ve never done before, and that pushes me to create more tools,” she says. “Each tool makes the next sculpture possible.”

Her process starts with conceptual drawings, which she turns into small, gestural sketches made of wire and twine, and then into computer models based on custom software that’s able to account for the effects of gravity and wind on the sculpture’s soft form. Frequently, she creates a physical, scaled model and drapes it from the 16-foot ceiling of her studio in Brookline, Massachusetts. She will then make a 3D computer model built on data about the sculpture, including the thickness, weight, and stiffness of each individual knot — which calculates the overall tensile forces that will be necessary to support the sculpture. Most of her installations need to withstand tens of thousands of pounds of force. From these models, an engineer will produce construction drawings. 

“Dream Catcher,” installed in 2017, was the first of her pieces to include tensioned, horizontal layers. She met with the hotel’s architectural engineering firm, Skidmore, Owings & Merrill, before the two towers were constructed, to discuss how to execute the design in a way that didn’t block residents’ views of the mountains.

With Echelman collaborating with SOM at such an early stage, the firm was able to engineer the buildings in a way that accommodated the artwork. For instance, they embedded the sculpture’s supporting hardware in the floors at 16 different locations when they poured the concrete. “There are about 20 rooms where if you could pick up the carpet, you would see some pretty insane engineering mechanisms,” says Pally. Later, the engineers used a laser-based surveying technology known as Lidar to scan the sculpture and confirm that “Dream Catcher” hung as the 3D computer models predicted. It did.

Although all of Echelman’s pieces are exquisitely planned, she was pleasantly surprised in the early days by the way people interacted with her art. They’d recline for long periods in the grass or on the carpeting, staring upward. They were willing to let something unfold and see the installations from multiple viewpoints. “Dream Catcher” was no exception. When you see the sculpture from the side, she says, the waves of color inspired by the brain-wave mapping become apparent. Then, “as you move from a side view to underneath and look up, suddenly something special happens. The dream catchers all line up. You see straight through, up to the sky.”

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Tracy Staedter is a writer based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

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