Game Changers

In the Boston arts scene, looking up to the sky and digging into the past

Janet Echelman’s sculptures capture attention the world over, while Pamela Hatchfield becomes the city’s unofficial conservator-in-chief.


The world is looking up at Janet Echelman’s living sculptures.

Dina Rudick/Globe file
Brookline artist Janet Echelman.

In January, Janet Echelman stood among the crowd at Oxford Circus in central London that had come to see her latest work, a massive weaving of illuminated fiber strands suspended high in the air between two buildings. As the sculpture moved and billowed, the crowd began lying down in the street to watch. Echelman says she felt a surge of joy taking in the scene; she, too, lay down, on the cold asphalt.

“Art can leave the traditional confines of the gallery or museum,’’ says Echelman, who lives in Brookline. “It can go beyond the walls, so that increasingly everyone feels a part of it and entitled to an opinion.”

To make and install Echelman’s sculptures takes a host of aeronautical and structural engineers, industrial craftsmen and women, artisans, and software designers. The finished public art — there are more than 35 installations in Boston and beyond — has stopped people in their tracks around the world.


In West Hollywood this September, her permanent sculpture Dream Catcher will be suspended between two towers along the Sunset Strip. The work is based on the mapping of human brain waves during deep sleep. In progress is Pulse, next to Philadelphia’s City Hall, a fountain with lights and mist that will track trains moving underground on subway lines.

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Around here, Echelman may be best known for her giant netted installation As If It Were Already Here that floated above the Rose Fitzgerald Kennedy Greenway last summer and, though it has since been taken down, remains woven into the city’s collective memory.


The next time you’re perusing the ancient art collection at the Museum of Fine Arts, in awe of the 4,000-year-old Bersha Procession or the Etruscan stone coffins, thank Pamela Hatchfield. A conservator at the museum for 30 years, she has worked behind the scenes to painstakingly restore ancient works and even had a hand in a more recent find.

State officials called upon Hatchfield in 2014 to unearth a time capsule buried at the State House for 159 years. Chisel in hand, she spent eight hours on a cold January day trying to delicately remove the capsule from a stone block.

In the museum, she is still at work on a project she began five years ago, tediously inspecting and cleaning a centuries-old marble basin from Pompeii one square inch at a time. “The surface is so sugary and deteriorated, there is no way to clean it safely by actually touching it,” the Jamaica Plain resident says. So, instead, she uses an infrared laser — the same kind that’s employed to remove unwanted tattoos — to lift dirt, soil, and ash from the uneven surfaces of the ancient basin. She says the process allows the object and its story to emerge.


The basin, for example, was damaged by an earthquake and restored during the first century AD, only to be buried in ash during the eruption of Mount Vesuvius and later eroded due to a rising water table. It’s not yet on display, but part of the restoration process includes broader considerations about which portions were repaired in antiquity and whether some of the volcanic ash on the basin’s surface should be preserved.

“We look at what is possible, given the physical condition of the work, and what is needed to tell the story of this object,” Hatchfield says. “I love being part of this continuum and allowing the objects to speak for themselves.”

Megan Woolhouse is a Globe staff writer. Send comments to