Janet Echelman Inspires at Ithra

Janet Echelman is an artist who took unexpected measures to create monumental sky sculptures. She is a creator of masterpieces that connect people, a problem solver in the most adverse circumstances and overall, an inspiring optimist who sees a lighted path before doubt could overshadow opportunity. With over a decade of experience, Echelman inspired the visitors at the King Abdulaziz Center for World Culture’s (Ithra) Idea Lab with her talk on December 19 about her insightful journey and followed it with a humble discussion of her immaculate success. An interview before her talk delves deeper into her thoughts on her journey and on Saudi Arabia’s new platform for art.

Armed with a Harvard degree, she pushed through life to chase her dreams of becoming an artist, or as Echelman said herself, “—to try for them.” Janet’s mindset is focused to look for opportunity before compromising what could be. She has had her fair share of hardships; but in what seems like true Janet Echelman fashion, she has met these hardships with a problem solving eye.

With thick white-frame glasses and a colorful tie-dye scarf, Janet intrigued us during her interview. Her short-pixie style haircut framed her face as she absorbed her surroundings, adding to her enthused artistic eye. Her charming persona and never-give-up attitude was nothing short of inspiring.

Janet began her journey with what seemed like a dead-end—she received rejections from seven art schools; yet that didn’t stop her from chasing her dreams. “It was the end of the world, it felt; but it was good for me because it pushed me to realize I had to be an artist for me, and that I had to find my own path to become the artist I would become,” she states.

Janet’s inspirations for her art come from life itself; the place where her sculpture will be displayed, the people, the culture, and the history she observes become her muse. She draws in these details to create masterpieces that lure the public and imprint the city itself.

Over the past 23 years, her art has evolved with technology. “My art is constantly changing,” she said, “each piece for me is a departure and I only take on a new project if it gives me a chance to push a boundary, to re-question some aspect of my art.” The evolution of her sculptures began with traditional fishnet intertwined to create a large, wind-dancing sculpture to machine-knotted fiber art that has been engineered by specialists and worked with advanced materials. Janet adds, “Each time there’s a new technology, I explore what I can [do to] express with it that is unique to [the time of] now.”

Janet’s visit to Ithra has paralleled her use of engineering methods and Ithra’s architecture model. As Ithra has used a mix of traditional and modernized methods to design the iconic building that stands today, with the sculpture of the pebble welded using curved steel pipes. This unequaled marvel has proven Saudi Arabia’s strength of engineering culture, one that Janet Echelman hasn’t turned a blind eye to, she expresses, “I’m very moved by the respect for quality of the exhibit—of the building itself, of every material and method, the way that things are conjoined together and have created these underpinnings of this beautiful and thoughtful center. I’m very inspired by it and excited for what this means for the region.” She twisted her scarf around her shoulders and continued, “I can see how Ithra can be a game changer for Saudi artists, but also for the broader public to realize [their] potential.”

Janet continued to convey her perception of the Kingdom’s emerging art scene. “I feel this is an area that the whole world will be looking to, to learn from, and be inspired by. There’s a deep story to be told here and artists are uniquely capable of telling that story. I can imagine my work here in Saudi. The materials and methods I’m using have been used here for hundreds of years by fishermen; so it seems like it’s perfect for Saudi, in that it brings the history and the future together.”

With the country’s emergence of platforms for artists, Ithra serves as a flourished stage for art and we asked Janet for a piece of advice for inspiring Saudi artists. “Perhaps no artist wants advice from anyone. So, I suppose the real advice is to listen inwards to yourself. Here [in Saudi], there is a deep story to be told and artists are uniquely capable of expressing that. So I think all the inspiration and all the inputs are here for real renaissance in art.”

To have had a world-renowned artist as Janet Echelman give her talk at Idea Lab was a remarkable experience in itself. Her professional journey and the overcoming of obstacles to create each art piece is inspiring to all. It was enriching to meet the artist herself behind the several permanent works that hang in cities across the world, from She Changes in Porto, Water Sky Garden in Vancouver, Dream Catcher in Hollywood, to her latest 1.78 that has been displayed in Madrid and Dubai. Her story encourages one to give their dreams a chance, to find a solution to the obstacles they face, and to continually search for what enlightens us.

Written by Nora Al-Taha