By now, anyone who's interested has had ample opportunity to get a sneak preview -- and at least a glimmer of understanding — of the ambitious new public art project recently approved for Dilworth Plaza.
But Monday night, the Fairmount Park Art Association scored a real coup by flying in the work's creator, just-announced Guggenheim Fellow Janet Echelman, who offered a detailed look at her vision for the space.
Echelman's presentation capped the Association's brief annual meeting, held at the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Executive Director Penny Balkin Bach began by highlighting the group's recent activities and plans (see below) before Susan K. Weiler, an Association trustee and partner at OLIN — the landscape architect for the Dilworth project — introduced the 45-year-old Boston-based sculptor.
Echelman traced her trajectory as a painter who found herself learning batik in Bali for a decade, served a stint working with the artist Robert Rauschenberg, garnered a Fulbright to study in India, and eventually started experimenting with sculpture. Inspired by local fishermen, she settled on net as her medium, seeing in it, she said, "a new approach to creating volumetric spaces without the heavy material."
Her work eventually caught the attention of planners looking to redevelop a stretch of Porto, Portugal's waterfront and Echelman's public art career was off. After doubting whether she could transform her ephemeral art into something that was "permanent, engineered, [and] durable," Echelman successfully unveiled — three years and two children later — "She Changes" in Porto in 2005.
A billowing 50,000-square-foot net that weights one ton and resembles an upside down flying saucer, the piece was credited with being the first monumental public sculpture to use a soft and flexible material. It set a signature for Echelman, and she's since created similar pieces in Phoenix, Denver, and Vancouver. "But what do you do when someone says, 'you can't do anything you've ever done before'?" she asked at Monday evening's presentation.
For that demanding Philadelphia request, she continued, she started by trying to understand the gestures and historic legacies of the site. "I did a lot of homework," she told PlanPhilly by phone from her office, where she was catching up between her Philadelphia appearance and jetting off to San Francisco to officially introduce her latest commission. "I didn't know what the piece would be about or where on the site it would be located," she continued. "I just thought it shouldn't compete with the architecture, and that it should reference history."