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Janet Echelman: The sculptor of wonders

No artist in the Boston area is working with greater ambition, on a grander scale.

Janet Echelman /Jonathan Wiggs/Globe staff/Globe Staff

When Oxford Circus in central London shuts down for four nights in mid-January — its roads blocked off to cars, the entrances to its Underground station closed, and its famous red buses rerouted — Londoners will have Brookline artist Janet Echelman to thank.

And despite all the inconvenience, it's a safe bet they will thank her. Inhabitants of major cities around the world have been reacting with gratitude, wonder, and awe to Echelman's soaring, rippling sculptures for almost two decades now. The works themselves have been getting more sophisticated and more beautiful by the year.

Boston got its own first taste of Echelman's work this summer, when As If It Were Already Here, a vast, undulating, colored mesh web in three dimensions, was suspended between office towers over the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway. The work, which came down in October, was the most galvanizing piece of public sculpture in Boston in living memory. "I was overwhelmed by what people told me this sculpture meant to them," says Echelman. "One resident told me the sculpture made her 'feel safer.' A curator told me it changed his view of Boston and that he could no longer say that any idea was impossible."

Echelman, 49, runs Studio Echelman, which fulfills prestigious commissions all over the world. Boston, she believes, is entering "a new renaissance." She lives here, she says, because "it's the best place in the world to create my art."


Almost 20 years ago, Echelman was inspired by fishing nets she saw on a beach in India. Her sculptures today use rope, knots, advanced engineering, and projected light to create extraordinary effects. The results are massive, kinetic works wherein the movement of any one element affects all the others. Echelman is trying, she says, "to make sense out of the physical shifts in our planet and the place where humans fit in."

She is quick to credit the many people — mechanical and aeronautical engineers, lighting designers, landscape architects, and fabricators — who help realize her vision. But for all its collaborative aspects, that vision is undoubtedly hers. No artist in the Boston area is working with greater ambition, on a grander scale, and with more impressive results.


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Sebastian Smee is an art critic for The Boston Globe. Send comments to