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A picture of Janet Echelman

Janet Echelman

Artist, sculptor

in artist

Who are you, and what do you do?

My name is Janet Echelman. I'm an artist who makes soft, billowing sculpture at the scale of buildings. They're choreographed by wind and light and shift from being an object you look at, to a living environment you can get lost in.

I started out as a painter based in Bali, Indonesia, where I studied ancient craft traditions and used them to address contemporary life and art.

After a decade painting, I went to India on a Fulbright and promised to give exhibitions around the country, so shipped my art supplies to begin work. When my paints went missing, I was forced to embrace unorthodox materials available in the local fishing village, and began sculpting with fishing net methods. This has led to some big surprises (including the Smithsonian's American Ingenuity Award, and having Oprah put my art #1 on her "List of 50 Things That Make You Say Wow!"). If you want the full story, I tell it in a TED talk called "Taking Imagination Seriously" which has now been translated into 35 languages and shared with millions.

What hardware do you use?

I use an ultra-lightweight fiber (UHMWPE - Ultra High Molecular Weight Polyethylene) which is fifteen times stronger than steel, pound for pound. This is what tethered the Mars Rover, and it has enabled my sculpture to be so light that it can literally lace into a city's skyscrapers across streets and parks. I also use a fiber called PTFE (Poly-Tetra-Fluoro-Ethylene) which is used in astronaut's spacesuits and holds its color 100% against the sun's ultraviolet rays.

And what software?

My art is designed with digital computer software that models each knot and twine segment, including its thickness, stiffness, and weight, and models it with the forces of gravity.

I also work with a tight-knit group of talented design colleagues in my studio, and an external team of brilliant aeronautical and mechanical engineers, lighting designers, computer scientists, architects, and industrial fabricators and artisans to make the artwork come to life.

What would be your dream setup?

My goal is to sculpt at the scale of the city, as a soft counterpoint to hard-edged buildings. I want to lace into the fabric of the city, attaching exclusively to pre-existing structures.