Have you had a chance to see Janet Echelman’s newest piece, “As If It Were Already Here?” The net of shimmering rope is floating over the Rose Kennedy Greenway through October, and it really is a must-see piece of art. This week I had a chance to chat with the sculptor and artist about the inspiration for the piece and her creative process.
For those unfamiliar with your art, how would you describe the media you work in?
Soft, billowing counterpoint to hard-edged buildings in the city. It combines ancient traditions passed down from generation to generation but coupled with cutting-edge computer science to create a new approach and art. It is both monumental and at the same time with exacting details and attention to craftsmanship and engineering.
I’m curious to hear more about the piece that just went up at Rose Kennedy Greenway. Did I read that you drew inspiration from the Big Dig/Central Artery Tunnel?
I drew inspiration through the many layers of Boston’s history. Early in my research I visited every building that the piece would be attached to. When I came to 125 High St., they offered to show me the original granite blocks that were the sea wall. This was from when John Adams had his office in this building.
We’ve transformed the city of Boston in ways that seemed so impossible. From the Trimountain that was cut down to create the Back Bay to the ambition of the city when it chose to thread an elevated highway through it, to its visionary thinking to remove the highway, bury it and return the land to its dwellers and recreation.
The band of colors and patterning are inspired by the remembrance of lanes of traffic and movement. They are all layers of history recalled in the work.
The word I kept coming across when I was learning more about your art is “whimsical.” But it sounds like there’s nothing playful about what goes into creating one of your pieces—you use computer models and math. Talk me through the process of creating a piece.
The beginning of all my artwork is a pleasure; the generating of ideas and sketches and patterns. That’s why I’m excited to get up every morning. The physical realization of my ideas requires collaboration with engineers. The leading design company Autodesk created customized software for my artwork. They are sponsors of this artwork, along with the Richard and Susan Smith Family Foundation.
Each line is developed for its thickness, weight and strength. Each knot is calculated to withstand gravity and wind. The higher up the sculpture, the more wind there is. This piece is the highest one we’ve ever had—365 feet in the air. It’s been completed with 100 miles of rope. It weighs one ton, covers half an acre and has half a million knots.
The way we do it still retains the delicacy of lines. We use fibers with 15 times the strength of steel. It’s incredibly strong and done with ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene.
This is really about collaboration with engineers, material scientists, architects, hand craftsmen, the Greenway and their team, and Shawmut Design and Construction and their team. The whole work is a manifestation of working together. It’s about connection. One piece of twine moves and every mesh is effected. It’s physical proof of interconnecting. It’s a very hopeful sign for the city to work together like this.
What’s your favorite public space in Boston?
It’s hard to say because this city is so rich in public space: The Greenway. The Charles River. Harvard Yard. Mount Auburn Cemetery. The Public Garden. As an artist, it’s exciting to be a part of all this rich public space.
Four questions is a weekly interview column featuring interesting people connected with the Greater Boston Jewish community. Find past columns here. Have an idea of someone we should interview? Email Molly!