Commencement 2016: Biographies - Janet Echelman

Janet Sue Echelman, artist and sculptor, is awarded an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts during the Phase I ceremony of Tufts University's 160th Commencement on Sunday, May 22, 2016.
Photo by Alonso Nichols/Tufts Photography


Your soaring imagination and talent for experimentation have forever redefined our notions about public art. Your monumental fabric sculptures have won acclaim for “changing the very essence of urban spaces,” because they convey form and meaning with materials that ripple and dance in the sky. For six months last year, you transformed the hard edges of the City of Boston with your massive mesh sculpture As If It Were Already Here, which floated above the Rose Kennedy Greenway. You have achieved your dream of creating spaces that “foster calm and contemplation.” Here at Tufts, we value the arts because they help us interpret the world through a different lens. Inspiring us to lift our sights, you have lifted our hearts, and the university is proud to present you today with an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree.

Photo by Todd Erickson


Critics use plenty of intriguing phrases to describe the work of sculptor JANET ECHELMAN—“dream weaver,” “architect of urban airspace,” “artist that defies categorization.” She has garnered international acclaim for her monumental fiber-woven sculptures that are exhibited outdoors in cities around the world.

After graduating from Harvard University in 1987 with a B.A. in visual and environmental studies, Echelman traveled on a Rotary International Fellowship to Hong Kong University to immerse herself in the study of Chinese brush painting and calligraphy. There she applied to seven art schools—and was rejected by all seven. Undeterred, she moved to Bali, in Indonesia, where she began combining traditional textile methods with contemporary painting. Five years later she returned to Harvard as an artist-in-residence.

In 1997, after earning an M.F.A. in painting from Bard College and a master’s in psychology from Lesley University, Echelman received a Fulbright scholarship to India, where she taught at the National Institute of Design and visited Mahabalipuram, a fishing village on the southeast coast that is known for its sculpture and sanctuaries carved out of rock in the seventh and eighth centuries. The U.S. Embassy booked exhibitions of her paintings around the country. However, Echelman’s paint supplies went missing, so she had to improvise. She tried the local methods of bronze casting, but found the materials heavy and expensive. Then, walking along the shore one day, she was struck by the sight of fishermen rolling their nets into mounds on the sand.

“I’d seen it every day, but this time I saw it differently—a new approach to sculpture, a way to make volumetric form without heavy, solid materials,” she recounted in her 2011 TED talk, “Taking Imagination Seriously,” which has been translated into thirty-four languages and viewed by more than 1.5 million people. She decided to create mammoth experiential sculptures that were not solid, but instead would move and change with wind, water, and light.

She makes her art using a material NASA has used for spacesuits, flexible fibers fifteen times stronger than steel, yet light enough to ripple in the wind. She begins each new piece by sketching out designs in her Brookline, Massachusetts, studio. Then, she and a team of designers use 3-D imaging to virtually drape her creations over the contours of cityscapes. She also works with engineers, landscape architects, and fabricators to ensure that her work can withstand the harshest elements.

“My dream is to transform hard-edged cities with soft, billowing forms—to create spaces that foster calm and contemplation,” Echelman has said.

One of her most famous pieces, As If It Were Already Here, a massive mesh sculpture made by hand-splicing rope and knotting twine, was suspended 365 feet above Boston’s Rose Kennedy Greenway from May to October 2015. The installation, which she described as “knitting together the fabric of the city,” spanned nearly half an acre, and connected the downtown to the waterfront.

Recently, she created a series of sculptures inspired by the fragility of the earth. One sculpture, known as 1.26, installed in Denver, Singapore, Prague, Montreal, Amsterdam, and Sydney, reflects the microseconds lost from our day after the force of the 2010 Chilean earthquake. Another piece, 1.8, captures the microseconds lost to the 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan, and has been displayed in the U.S. at the Smithsonian’s Renwick Gallery in Washington, D.C., and in London, where it has been suspended above the city’s busiest pedestrian intersection, Oxford Circus. The two sculptures are meditations on interconnectedness. “As individuals we may feel fragile, like a length of thread,” said Echelman, “but when knotted together, we have the capacity for incredible strength and resiliency.”

Echelman’s work has been praised by numerous art and news publications. In 2012, she was named an Architectural Digest Innovator for “changing the very essence of urban spaces,” and in 2014, she received the Smithsonian American Ingenuity Award in Visual Arts. On a lighter note, Oprah’s “List of 50 Things that Make You Say Wow” ranked Echelman’s art #1.

Tufts will award Echelman an honorary Doctor of Fine Arts degree.