Janet Echelman '87 at the edge of urban art

Janet EchelmanSculptor Janet Echelman AB ’87, LF ’08 talks about the influence of undergrad years and following dreams.

By Anita Lo '16

Sculptor and artist Janet Echelman AB ’87, LF ’08, speaks deliberately. My impression is that each word is spoken with gravitas because it is a product of thorough reflection; each word sounds ripe with wisdom. Thinking deeply about nuance is, after all, at the heart of her vaulting public art. Her sculpture As If It Were Already Here is suspended over the Rose Kennedy Greenway in Boston through October. The aerial “net” consists of more than 500,000 knots and 100 miles of twine; its largest span is 600 feet. She’ll be speaking about As If at 6 p.m. Monday, September 28 in Gund Hall at the Graduate School of Design, and leading a site visit to the one-ton sculpture at 4 p.m. Tuesday, September 29 at the Greenway in Boston (supported by the Peter Ivers Visiting Artist Fund). I spoke with her about the challenge of being an artist, the openness of urban art and some lighter topics.

"As If It Were Already Here"

On time as a Harvard student:

The reason I ended up in my first art class at Harvard was because I wanted at least one class with not as much reading. My sophomore year I declared history, and I was painting as an extracurricular in the Mather House art studio one evening a week. That extracurricular was a breath of fresh air for me, somewhere where I could be immersed in pure paint – one evening that was different from everything else I was doing. My first art class was a drawing class [taught by Carole Bolsey], and its primary assignment was selecting an artist’s lifework and presenting it. I picked Matisse, and what impacted me was that when he was an old man, he was sick and confined to bed, but at that point he invented a whole new way of making images ­– the Cut-Out series. That’s the way I want to live: Where at any point in my life, I’m being challenged at my edge, and the only person responsible for challenging me is me. So when I graduated, I realized being an artist was the only thing I wanted to do.

On Boston’s history:

An aspect of history that surprised me [while researching for As If It Were Already Here] was the nature of Boston’s physical transformation. People in Boston had the imagination and felt capable of transforming their world: The city was originally called Trimountain, and they actually chopped off the peaks of three mountains and turned water into land.

Another aspect was the fact that everybody looks back on that elevated highway with disdain. They talk about the Big Dig and the Greenway, but reading the documents of its opening, Boston was so proud of this highway. It had a closed circuit TV, and Boston was at the forefront of technology. It was state-of-the-art, it was progressive, it was making the future happen in its own time. It was only a matter of weeks before it was clogged with traffic; they called it the world’s largest parking lot.

I just thought that this showed a gutsiness to do new things but also the willingness to admit when you’re wrong. That’s sort of the process that helped develop the sculpture’s design. Three empty voids are recalling the trimountain that was sacrificed for land. And I’m interested to recall the highway in all its glory and disdain. The bands of color moving through the knots are recalling the taillights moving at night.

On the purpose of her work:

My goal is to invite open-ended contemplation, to offer a contemplative experience in the heart of the city. I’m not trying to lead people in their thought too much. There have been a number of comments and things people have told me about [As If It Were Already Here]. A waiter in one of the restaurants whose building is attached to the sculpture told me that at night he goes and lies down in the grass and watches the colors change. A woman who lives near there said that the sculpture makes her feel safer; she’d walked quickly through before. Another woman told me that she can’t see the sculpture from her office, so every day on her lunch hour she walks to it; it gives her a destination. That makes me really happy.

On transforming cities with sculpture:

I see my sculpture as a soft counterpart to hard-edged buildings, and it makes me consider the fact that our cities are the way they are because we have chosen to make them this way. We can build cities of concrete, or we can build a city with a greenway running through it. We can build cities with hard-edged structures and impervious pavements, or we can have soft fluidly moving forms. Having it in the city brings art into everyday life, to everyone. Everyone feels entitled to be in the street. Not everyone feels entitled to go into an art gallery or museum.

On exploring after college

When you graduate, you recognize the value in having the freedom to try things out. It will never be easier to explore an unknown path than right when you graduate. Take advantage of that freedom, and recognize that low-opportunity cost is really important. A career path like mine where there are no rungs is difficult to start later in life. I felt this as so many of my classmates felt like they had to make compromises and it becomes more and more difficult to break out. My advice is to at least try your actual dream, and not to start with compromise.  

In addition to the events listed above, the Hubway and the Greenway Conservancy will host a closing celebration to de-installation 7 p.m. October 9 underneath the sculpture at Fort Point Channel Parks. 


The site visit is supported by the Peter Ivers Visiting Artist Fund.