Even if she is not there physically, with the installation of bending arc complete at the new St. Pete Pier, Janet Echelman has a homecoming.
The Boston-based artist was born and raised in Tampa. But her prestigious artistic career has taken her around the world, where she installs aerial net sculptures that come alive with the movement of the wind and with colored LED lights at night.
Echelman said that of all the sculptures she has created, bending arc is the most significant.
“It’s my hometown,” she said. “My parents and family still live there. It’s very special to create a hometown piece. I never have the opportunity to see most of my pieces again. Good to have it in a place that I can visit again and again.
Each installation she creates, with an expert global design team that includes architects, aeronautical and mechanical engineers, lighting designers, computer scientists, landscape architects and fabricators, is unique to the city in which she resides. .
When she started planning bending arc, she tapped into her love of nature and Florida beaches, and came from an emotional place of fun and recreation. She made patterns based on striped umbrellas from old postcards she had studied and the barnacles that cling to the pier.
But during her research, the piece took on a different meaning, one that four years ago she had no idea would be so incredibly timely once the piece was installed.
She was studying the social and political history of the pier and learned that black people were not allowed to enter the old pier until 1957, when a lawsuit was filed against the city by some members of the community. black against the city to force the integration of Spa Beach and Spa Pool.
This led to a 1957 United States Supreme Court decision allowing the integration of blacks on municipal beaches and swimming pools. But the law was not enforced. In response, members of the black community held several “swim-ins” in 1958, but the city manager closed the beach and pool each time.
Echelman recalled his own childhood memories of his grandmother telling him about signs on city establishments prohibiting blacks and Jews, including one on the Tampa side of the Gandy Bridge.
The piece was therefore created with those who were denied access in mind. The title is taken from a phrase by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.: “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”
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“The title speaks to the positive direction of change of inclusion and equality,” Echelman said. “When I see Tampa Bay’s moral arc moving towards justice, it makes sense to me.”
It is also important to Echelman that his sculpture be accessible to everyone. She intentionally uses everyday materials and methods like the knotted fishing net. In this case, she tied 180 miles of string, so people would feel comfortable with the artwork and wouldn’t need an art history class to understand it.
“I invite people to create their own meaning,” she said. “I leave it open, as my hope is that you become aware of your own sensory experience within the work and create your own narrative or meaning. You complete the artwork.
It is also his intention that there be a playful element in the sculpture. She encourages onlookers to lie below and gaze at her softness as she swells with the wind.
As soft and airy as the sculpture is, it’s incredibly strong and durable. It can withstand winds of 150 mph, the same a skyscraper has to endure.
The sculpture contains 1,662,528 nodes which, according to Echelman, represent the interconnectedness of humanity.
“When a single node in the sculpture’s network moves, the location of all other nodes changes,” she said.
The opening lighting scene speaks of “warmth and passion” and uses a palette of magentas, purples and a burst of orange. The complete lighting program will take place in another phase.
Echelman would usually have been here to direct the lighting patterns, the final stage of the installation. But she did it remotely via video from Boston recently, with her lighting designers in New York and a team on the ground in St. Petersburg. She said everything went “surprisingly well”.
This kind of adaptability is central to Echelman’s work. This is how this work was born.
In 1997 Echelman was in India on a Fulbright conference and was to exhibit his paintings throughout the country on behalf of the United States Embassy. But when her paintings didn’t arrive, she had to pivot. Inspired by the fishing nets she saw on the beach every day, she began collaborating with the fisherman to make lightweight, volumetric sculptures that moved with the wind.
“As an artist, restraint can be creatively liberating,” she said.
And she was flexible during the process of bringing her work to St. Petersburg, which sparked controversy. The sculpture was originally meant to be installed at Spa Beach, but environmentalists have brushed off fears it could endanger birds.
A series of public hearings followed. Echelman consulted with several experts, eventually obtaining a report from the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission that deemed the sculpture safe.
However, the site of the sculpture was changed to a family park on the approach to the pier. Echelman is happy with the location.
“Hearings have improved the sculpture,” she said. “It opened up the conversation about relocation. The relocated site is better, it is more accessible. The new site can be a central meeting place. The public process improved the outcome.
Echelman also credits Mayor Rick Kriseman and Deputy Mayor Kanika Tomalin for having an “ambitious vision” in investing in public art and beautiful public space and said that’s how a city of the arts progresses.
She considers the intersection of nature and art in her own work.
“The works adapt moment by moment to changing conditions of wind and light, finding nature revealed through swollen surfaces,” she said. “It is an invitation to contemplate our humanity. And the need to be humble in front of our exquisite planet.