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Janet Echelman on Creative Thinking and Living a Creative Life

Janet Echelman creates net sculpture environments in metropolitan cities around the world. A graduate of Harvard with Highest Honors in Visual Studies, she has lived and worked in Hong Kong, Bali, India, Portugal and the United States.

In her TED presentation video below, she talks about changing her form of expression due to circumstances.

It can be very productive for artists to embrace this kind of fluidity in their form of expression and identity: if you can’t paint or be a painter, then sculpt or make use of some other form of expression.

“I went off on my own to become an artist, and I painted for 10 years, when I was offered a Fulbright to India. Promising to give exhibitions of paintings, I shipped my paints and arrived in Mahabalipuram. The deadline for the show arrived — my paints didn’t. I had to do something.

“This fishing village was famous for sculpture. So I tried bronze casting. But to make large forms was too heavy and expensive. I went for a walk on the beach, watching the fishermen bundle their nets into mounds on the sand. I’d seen it every day, but this time I saw it differently — a new approach to sculpture, a way to make volumetric form without heavy solid materials. My first satisfying sculpture was made in collaboration with these fishermen.”

In an interview she talked about creating work on such a massive scale:

“It comes from my content – the experience of awe that comes from childhood and also from per-verbal life; before you could use language, the way you experience the world. We don’t have a lot of that as adults, the sense of the world opening up around you: holding on to your mother’s skirts, or climbing into crinolines, or sculptures that allow an adult human to feel small and surrounded and protected. So the reason for the scale of my work is based on the experience I want the viewer to have. It is not some arbitrary view that larger is better.”

[From Janet Echelman interview with Dr Jessica Hemmings.]


In a CNN interview about her work, she mentions some very interesting perspectives on how she views her life and creative work:

“My first semester at college, I took a drawing class where we had to report on the life’s work of different artists. I picked the painter Henri Matisse, who in old age became bedridden and then invented a whole new way of image-making (the cut-paper murals). I wanted to have a life like his, where I’d be learning at every stage without fragmentation between my inner life and my working life.

“My whole career I’ve been interested by the distinction between an emotional and an intellectual response to an artwork. For me, it’s always been important to engage the pre-verbal. Now, as I study some neuroscience, I’m learning that this distinction is mirrored in the structure of the brain, and that my sculpture engages the inner part of the brain responsible for all of our feelings, and this part of the brain has no capacity for language.

She points out that she also makes use in her work of “the analytical aspects — the historical and cultural references, the visualizations of scientific data. These all engage the outer part of the brain, the neocortex.

“I see this aspect of my art as giving people a handle to pull them into the contemplative, emotional, physical experience of moving underneath the sculpture. The most powerful part of the art is experiential, yet it’s the hardest to describe because it’s nonverbal. I don’t want to have to choose between emotional and intellectual response to my art — I’m now seeking to engage both.”

[From Sculptures that engage your heart — and expand your mind, CNN.]

“A painter paints, a musician plays, a writer writes – but a movie actor waits.”

Echelman reminded me of this quote by Mary Astor (1906-87; “The Maltese Falcon” and many other films). But do you necessarily have to wait? Yes, movie actors do have to spend many hours waiting, and magazine article writers may have to wait for assignments.

But creative expression can take many forms, especially with all the digital tools now available, and all the Internet channels for displaying, publishing and selling artwork.

[Photo: Tsunami 1.26, 2011 – Sydney, Australia from artist site]

Echelman is one of the artists in the book Sculptors at Work: Interviews About the Creative Process, by Victor M. Cassidy.

Another book: Interviews with Artists: 1966-2012 by Michael Peppiatt.


Janet Echelman on Creative Thinking and Living a Creative Life

Douglas Eby

Douglas EbyDouglas Eby, MA/Psychology, is a writer and researcher on psychology and personal development related to creativity; creator of the , and author of books including [link to book site with excerpts.]
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APA Reference
Eby, D. (2019). Janet Echelman on Creative Thinking and Living a Creative Life. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from


Last updated: 26 Mar 2019
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