The blog of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation

Jul 23, 2012

Janet Echelman: Curious, inspired, adventurous

Posted by Valerie Nahmad

By Linda Harris, Center City Philadelphia

Janet Echelman pursued many subjects in school: Visual Art at Bard College in New York; Counseling Psychology at Lesley University in Cambridge, Massachusetts; Chinese calligraphy and landscape painting at the University of Hong Kong; Visual and Environmental Studies at Harvard University, where she graduated with Highest Honors.

But by her own account, she never studied, sculpture, engineering, or architecture, all of which are key to the renown net sculpture environments she has constructed in metropolitan cities around the world. And yet she has pursued knowledge in those subjects in order to fulfill the promise of ideas, inspired by her imagination and a fishing village in South India.

While on a Fulbright scholarship in India, Echelman traveled to Mahabalipuram, famous for its sculpture, and shipped her art supplies and paints separately.  The paints, however, never arrived. So Echelman, inspired by the local materials and culture, began working with bronze casters in the village. The material proved too heavy and too expensive for her  Fulbright budget. As she traveled about the village and watched the local fishermen build their nets, she suddenly one evening was taken by an idea. She wondered if nets like those of the fishermen could be used to create sculpture without the heavy weight of metals. To listen to her tell the story in her TED talk and take a quiz, click here.

Today, Echelman has constructed temporary and permanent net sculpture environments in Phoenix, Arizona; Porto, Portugal; Madrid Spain; and Vilnius, Lithuania, just to name a few. She sees public art as a team sport and collaborates with a range of professionals including aeronautical and mechanical engineers, architects, lighting designers, landscape architects, and fabricators.

In Philadelphia, Echelman’s first work using moving curtains of illuminated atomized water will be integrated into Dilworth Plaza’s new, 11,600-square-foot fountain. The installation of this public artwork, Pulse, will ensure that the $50 million transformation of Dilworth Plaza on the west side of City Hall will become a uniquely memorable public space, thanks to support from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Janet Echelman’s artwork will be integrated into Dilworth’s Plaza’s new, 11,600-square-foot fountain, creating five-foot-tall, moving curtains of illuminated atomized water to trace above ground the real-time movement of the three transit lines that run beneath City Hall.

Commissioned by the Center City District, Echelman’s artwork, using the five-foot-tall, moving curtains of illuminated atomized water to  trace above ground the real-time movement of the three transit lines that run beneath City Hall, will create both a playful and animated embellishment on the fountain and highlight the existence of a transit system that brings 300,000 passengers into Center City each day.

The $400,000 grant to the Center City District, which will enable the installation of Echelman’s sculpture, is part of the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation’s Knight Arts Challenge, a $9 million initiative funding innovative projects that engage and enrich Philadelphia’s communities.

Construction on Dilworth Plaza began in January 2012, and will be completed in early 2014. The plaza will be transformed from an inaccessible, multi-level, unattractive, hard-surface plaza into a sustainable, well-maintained, green public space with no stairs or barriers from the street. The new plaza will have a large lawn, tree groves, a programmable fountain showcasing Echelman’s artwork, and a café with outdoor seating.

The Center City District, a private-sector organization dedicated to making Center City Philadelphia clean, safe and attractive, is committed to maintaining Center City’s competitive edge as a regional employment center, a quality place to live, and a premier regional destination for dining, shopping and cultural attractions.

Find us at, Facebook, and Twitter @ccdphila. For photos, videos, and more information about Dilworth Plaza and Janet Echelman’s artwork, please click here.

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