JOQ with Janet

JOQ with Janet

Just One Question

Why was it important for you to study craft traditions and collaborate with artisans?

Response from Janet



Photo by Christopher Michel

I see craft traditions as vessels of wisdom– because they hold aesthetic and structural knowledge passed down from generation to generation.  Because the techniques and ideas have been distilled over the centuries, only the essential remains.

If you take, for example, a simple knotted net method, you discover that the technique creates a robust, distributed, structural system, so that even if one node breaks, the remainder of the net continues to function.

I’ve always been drawn to hand-made artisanry, as I find beauty in the idiosyncracy of its imperfect geometry.  As humans we are not perfectly symmetrical, so I think we feel a sense of connection when we are surrounded by forms that share this imperfect symmetry.

This is a bit of a tangent, but when I was a kid, I remember asking my Mom if I could get braces because my front tooth was angled. She showed me how both she and my grandmother had exactly the same angle in the same place, and that these idiosyncracies were what made me beautiful in her eyes. So I think I started early seeing these idiosyncracies of design as character rather than as flaws.

This is really at the core of why I am so drawn to hand-made craft.

And in today’s cities, our environment is overwhelmingly filled with objects and architecture composed entirely from industrially fabricated elements.  Even `though the machines may be run by people, the resulting form bears no evidence of the human touch.

So one of my goals in my work is to re-introduce that quality of hand-crafted idiosyncracy into the architectural scale of the city. To do this, I’ve had to move between the boundaries of art, craft, architecture, and even urban design.

But it all stems from my personal experience and desire, as I begin to feel alienated when I’m surrounded by concrete and hard edges everywhere, and I feel more human in an environment where I sense the traces of the human touch.

Janet Echelman


From Janet’s Bio

After seven years as an Artist-in-Residence (at Harvard), she returned to Asia, embarking on a Fulbright lectureship in India. With the promise to give painting exhibitions around the country, she shipped her paints to Mahabalipuram, a fishing village famous for sculpture.

When her paints never arrived, Echelman, inspired by the local materials and culture, began working with bronze casters in the village.

She soon found the material too heavy and expensive for her Fulbright budget. While watching local fishermen bundling their nets one evening, Echelman began wondering if nets could be a new approach to sculpture: a way to create volumetric form without heavy, solid materials.

By the end of her Fulbright year, Echelman had created a series of netted sculpture in collaboration with the fishermen. Hoisting them onto poles, she discovered that their delicate surfaces revealed every ripple of wind.

Editor’s Note

Most of the articles in Mez Mag eventually gravitate to the fact that African development models – particularly Western models – resist addressing the chaos and imperfection of Africa – where the true potential for creativity exists. Most models of development are planned and preconceived as pristine and programmed templates within the cozy comfort of the Ivory Tower. There is no room for error or imperfection – which are considered negative values.

What does this have to do with Janet Echelman’s perspectives on life and art? Everything:

Her perfect plan to deliver her Fulbright lectureship program and painting exhibition was unintentionally railroaded and sabotaged because her paints never arrived. How beautiful is that?

And then, her efforts with the bronze sculptures in Mahabalipuram did not work out either. How beautiful is that?

And then, when she had shed all these pre-conceived and pre-programmed plans, she found herself open to the dance. The dance of fishing nets rippling in the wind on the beach at Mahabalipuram. The Joy of Dance. How beautiful.

When Janet and I were talking on the phone recently we recalled taking the wonderful Ross McElwee’s documentary film class at the Carpenter Center at Harvard University when we were both students there in the late 1980’s.

Janet subsequently sent me an email saying:

I am remembering your Sadhu film from 1986-87 in Ross’s VES 150 class.”

I had studied Classical Sanskrit Literature around the time Janet and I were at Harvard and so I made a documentary in the Indian Himalayas about the sadhu – men who give up all their worldly possessions to meditate in the Himalayan foothills – and embrace death as a friend and not a foe. This tradition goes back to the anonymous Sanskrit authors of The Upanishads.

Robert Gardener, also a VES (Visual and Environmental Studies) professor had just made a film in India (1986) Forest of Bliss and he was helpful in preparing me for my own India film.

I also taught a course on Sanskrit Storytelling Traditions in New York inner city schools, including Martin Luther King Jr. high school in Harlem, NY and Roosevelt High School in the Bronx, NY.

After Janet and I spoke recently, it occurred to me that what she really needs to hear now is a Sanskrit Literature perspective of her own story in Mahabalipuram. So, here it is Janet…

03_ROO_Echelman_PhotoChristinaLazarSchuler_4249_YYMGJHJanet Echelman’s Mahabalipuram Story (The Classical Sanskrit Version):


There are 3 basic rules to remember in Sanskrit Literature:

One, that there is no imperfection. Two, that there are no coincidences. And three, that there are no rules – there is only Being.

To refer to the imperfection of Janet not receiving her paints as “beautiful” – as I have done above – is counterintuitive to a Western mindset. Isn’t it? Feels uncomfortable. Doesn’t it?

Yet that is what Sanskrit Literature calls “profound”. Imperfection is natural and beautiful. Coincidences too are normal. Not paranormal. It is the universe’s expression of harmony.


The Two Fishermen of Mahabalipuram

Once upon a time (in the late 1990’s actually…) there were two fishermen in Mahabalipuram, India, called “fisherman” and “fisherman”. Both fishermen addressed each other in this way.

While sitting in their boats one day, about to cast their nets, they saw a young American woman walking forlornly along the beach, looking very disappointed and a touch sad.

“Ah,” said fisherman, “Looks like this Western person has experienced some imperfection.”

“But does she not understand that imperfection is beautiful?”

“No, I don’t think she does – not by the look on her face.”

“Well then, what can we do about it? I mean we can’t buy her an ice-cream because we don’t have any rupees.”

“Well, maybe we can go and talk to her and cheer her up?”.

“Don’t be silly – we don’t speak English, remember? Perhaps we can just be…”

“But she doesn’t know what that means – she’s an American!”

“Yes, but I think this one is a little different. I can intuit a sense of awe in her. We just have to see it emerge… So let’s just be. Just be part of the profound universal Creation that we are. Which perceives not wealth or status or position. And let us go about our business. Let’s fish.”

“Yes, yes, fisherman – good idea! Let’s fish. We can just be, and if she is perceptive she will see the awe and wonderment in just simply being.”

And as the fishermen cast their nets they saw the spectacle of the nets billowing in the wind and they talked about Shiva – as they always did:

“Ah god Shiva is really dancing tonight! Look at how he is taking our nets and swaying and playing with the rhythm and ripple of the wind!”

“That is why he is The Lord of Dance. When Shiva becomes the dancer Nataraja, all the cobwebs of consciousness are torn to shreds and all the clogs and congestion that block the Imagination are released and fresh inspiration flows free like a river from The Joy of Dance.”

“Look at her – that American lady – look at her now – she is noticing, fisherman, she is looking at our nets and she is noticing what we see everyday…”

“.. and she is even slightly smiling – she is smiling, fisherman! She is experiencing the simple joy of being…”

“Yes, but it won’t last long, fisherman. She will go back to being sad again.”

“But why do you say that?”

“Because she is a Westerner. They can’t be still and just enjoy the simple awe and wonder of being. It is not good enough for them. They need to do something. Be busy.”

“Well, what do you think she is going to do with the wondrous wind-dance of our nets?”

“She will discover a way to capitalize on it and commoditize it and make it some kind of a successful venture – that’s what these people do, fisherman.”

“Well do you think it will make her happy? I mean all we really want is to see her smile again… She looked so sad when first we set eyes upon her.”

“Oh she will be very happy eventually, but first she must battle through cynicism and all the people that will mock her that her idea is foolish… all the Bali. Yes, Big Big Bali in her way.”

By “Bali” the fisherman was referring to King Bali who, at one point in Sanskrit mythology had taken over the entire world. Like a dictator or a tyrant or a debauched king. Full of toxic cynicism and insatiable greed. And so the people ask Lord Vishnu to go have a little chat with Bali. Bali, who was over 70 feet tall, and Vishnu, who appears as a tiny dwarf not much taller than Bali’s ankles.

Vishnu meekly, in his squeaky little voice, requests that Bali – who now rules over all the earth – kindly allow Vishnu a small territory in the amount of three steps. Three tiny steps of Vishnu’s little legs: a tiny territory indeed. Bali laughs a deafeningly big bombastic baritone laugh at Vishnu’s request and he sneers:

“My dear dwarf, you may have your three tiny steps of territory in my grand kingdom. Why not? I shall grant your stupid wish.”

Vishnu graciously thanks Bali. Then, before he takes his 3 steps he pauses. He looks first into the riches of his vast, endless Imagination.
Vishnu the dwarf, looks deeper and then deeper within.
And the deeper he looks within, the larger he grows in size.
He grows and he grows. He starts growing so large and so rapidly, that he begins to now tower far above tiny little Bali. And so, by the time that Vishnu takes his first step he is so large he steps over and conquers the entire earth. And with his second step, he steps over and conquers all the countless galaxies, and with his third and final step, he wins back the entire universe.

“That was the power of Lord Vishnu’s Imagination, isn’t it?”

“Yes, fisherman. And if this young lady can feel that same power of Imagination – if she one day learns to take her Imagination seriously – she will tear the cobwebs of cynicism and resistance in the path of her artistic inspiration and she will become a great success.

“And what do you imagine, fisherman, will be her success? What will she accomplish?”

“Well, I think she will one day have gigantic versions of these tattered and raggedy old fishing nets of ours just hanging around everywhere…”

“Hanging around?”

“Yes. Like in an airport. She will hang fishing nets in an airport – hanging off the ceilings.”

“But why? There are no fish to catch in airports. And from the ceiling? What ever for ?”

“I do not know. I do not understand it either. Bizarre. It makes absolutely no sense to me whatsoever. But as long as it makes her happy and puts a smile on her face we shall have accomplished our deed for the day and our karma will stay fresh and clean. Unsullied.”

“That is true. She smiles. And our karma stays good. Simple gifts. Good gifts all around.”

“I agree, fisherman. Our day is now a success. Our being has touched her being. And through no human will, just by being. Purity… Samsara. Hmm.. Funny, I have never seen an airport.”

“Nor have I, fisherman. Nor have I. We only see the polluting airplanes flying high above us now and then. Fisherman, do you ever wish we could both fly in one of those airplanes ?”

“No, never, fisherman. Never. Why should we? We have our Imagination. And our Imagination can soar stronger and rise higher than any airplane.”


“Samsara, the transmigration of the souls, takes place in one’s own mind. Therefore let a person’s thoughts always remain pure. For what a person thinks, that they become. This is the mystery of Eternity.”

The Upanishads, translated from Sanskrit to English for Penguin Classics by Juan Mascaró (1897–1987)

  1. Malima04-21-2012

    Karim and Ms. Echelman’s writings here brightened my day.

    As a frequent traveler to SFO, I can say that Every Beating Second was a captivating discovery on my first trip to the renovated terminal and something I look forward to seeing. Hearing about the handmade design philosophy gives an extra dimension to my appreciation of the sculpture, I will look at it differently next time!

    Editor’s Note

    Malima I. Wolf is a member of our Editorial Advisory Panel. She completed her PhD in Mechanical Engineering from MIT in 2011, and has written for Mez Mag on recycling systems. Malima is currently a Rocca Fellow at the Politecnico di Milano in Italy.

    She also swims with dolphins!

  2. Allan04-21-2012

    “I see craft traditions as vessels of wisdom–” Janet Echelman

    “Each craft item we make is a vessel of its own cultural wisdom” – no clue who first said this, it could easily have been Janet.

    As a student I wondered around a lot of museums, and the ones that fascinated me most were the archaeological ones, where from a charred piece of carved wood and a shard of pottery and a few other discarded bits and pieces a whole ancient culture was explained and recreated for me.

    I have always wondered what those museum archaeologists would be able to project and recreate from the middens of our current lives.

    Like Janet, we at Mezimbite are very self conscious that the vessels we make from wood contain the values we hold about the value of work, materials and care for what we do and where we do it. And sincerely trust that the rituals in making are imbued into the individual pieces and assist in reflecting a rich and sustainable culture when used even when very far away.

    Allan Schwarz is Founder/Executive Director of Mezimbite Forest Centre, Mozambique

  3. Antoine Chiquet04-21-2012

    This post is just amazing!

    I would love to be intiatiated into Sanskrit literature or philosophy – if you had to recommmend me one book, which one should it be ? The one you mentioned below ?..

    The Upanishads – translated from Sanskrit for Penguin Classics by Juan Mascaró”


    Yes, Antoine, this edition would be my recommendation.

    I have read many translations of The Upanishads – mostly by Indians authors – but nothing ever compares to this outstanding translation in Penguin Classics. Juan Mascaró spoke his native Catalan and Spanish and from there he learned Sanskrit purely because he loved the literature and wanted to read it in the original language.

    I also recommend his Sanskrit translation of the Bhagavad Gita from the Mahabharata.

    Bhishma wounded with the Pandavas and Krishna – Folio from the Razmnama (1761 – 1763), translation of the Mahabharata, commissioned by Mughal emperor Akbar. Pandavas are in armour.

    Back in the 1700’s, it was a French writer – Abraham Anquetil-Duperron, who translated the Sanskrit text to Latin for the first time for Europeans. Then, in the 1800’s, German philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer read The Upanishads and was compelled to say:

    “It is the most satisfying and elevating reading which is possible in the world. It is the solace of my life and will be the solace of my death.”


    Antoine Chiquet is a director of the Segal Family Foundation which cultivates community development initiatives and invests in efficient, charitable solutions that improve life in Sub Saharan Africa. Antoine is also the founder of Komo Learning Centres, a non-profit (501c3) corporation dedicated to providing community-based educational opportunities for vulnerable and disadvantaged children in Uganda.

  4. Editor's Note04-21-2012

    Janet Echelman has been a topic of conversation on Mez Mag well before this current interview. Her work and her artistic outlook was discussed extensively within a previous interview with Cambridge University ecological-economist Sir Partha Dasgupta.

    Below is a series of comment excerpts that are directly relevant to this current post.

  5. Karim04-21-2012

    Suzanne – an attribute that you have in common with Allan and his artisans in Mozambique is that you see creativity as a resource.

    I know that as a fellow artist you appreciated the TED Talk by Janet Echelman.

    What is it about Janet’s example – or our friend Thomas Thwaite’s Toaster Project – that was interesting to you and why do you also “take imagination seriously“?

  6. Suzanne Joyal04-21-2012

    “I have not failed.”
    “I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” – Thomas Alva Edison

    On Thomas Thwaites’ Toaster Project

    I was showing my boys more about The Toaster Project (from an earlier article) by Thomas [Mez Mag Editorial Panel Member] when I came across this quote from Thomas Edison:

    “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

    “But does she not understand that imperfection is beautiful?” – Fisherman

    On Janet’s (so-called) “failure”

    I think that in retrospect, Janet would agree:

    The fact that her art supplies did not show up, is probably no longer considered a failure, because without that failure, I wonder if she would have ever gotten to her enormous lacey rope sculptures.

    Executive Director Suzanne Joyal is an arts educator and social entrepreneur. A graduate of Wellesley College, Suzanne has spent most of her adult life working to improve the creative opportunities of children, regardless of economic background. (Suzanne is currently in Zambia – April, 2012)

    On Janet Echelman’s walk on Mahabalipuram beach, India

    I admire and understand Janet’s decision to go for a walk on the beach when faced with such a huge crisis. It is what artists do. Because they are not constrained by existing solutions (as they usually don’t exist), they look for their solutions “outside the box”.

    On the beach, in the forest, in a pile of rags.

    My monumental netted sculptural environments move through time, animated by an ever-changing ‘wind choreography,’ making invisible air currents suddenly visible to the human eye. I make living, breathing pieces that respond to the forces of nature – wind, light, water.

    Janet Echelman

    On walks on the beach..

    Maybe we should all take a walk along the beach to find our solutions: they might be right in front of our eyes, we just haven’t seen them yet.

    Mahabalipuram Beach where Janet Echelman found her inspiration

    Executive Director
    Jumpstart Zambia

  7. Karim04-21-2012

    In a previous interview by Sarah Armstrong of Madhu’s interest in both Urban Design (as a professor in the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT) as well as Indian Classical Dancing, Madhu discusses the power of ingenuity and imagination. She also emphasizes that creativity has to be in harmony with functionality.

    Madhu explains it this way:

    Steve Jobs expressed this sentiment best:

    “Design is not just what it looks like, feels like. Design is how it works.”

    Helicopter design sketches by Leonardo da Vinci

    Editor’s Note
    Madhu Dutta-Koehler whose article is mentioned above, is a member of Mez Mag’s Editorial Advisory Panel.

    She holds a PhD from MIT where she teaches Urban Design. As a recipient of the 2010-2011 Martin Fellowship, Madhu conducted research in the following areas:

    “Developing planning strategies for climate change adaptation for rapidly growing cities of the global south. Sustainable urban planning and development practices; green building technology and infrastructure, environmentally sensitive urban design.” The MIT Energy Initiative

    A Question for Suzanne
    Suzanne – what do you think about applying Imagination as a practical tool ?
    How is imagination useful and functional and practical in African Development?

  8. Suzanne Joyal04-21-2012

    Karim – I think imagination is such a precious subject – and hearing Janet Echleman’s TED talk reminds me of the power of Imagination. Imagination is something that we all have, no matter the economic opportunities. This is the level playing field we start with.

    Someone a long time ago said “necessity is the mother of invention.”

    I would add that imagination is our most important tool. Imagination is something that we are all born with, which cannot necessarily be taught, but is certainly easily nurtured. And it can be nurtured for free: just let a child be bored, and they will find a solution.

    Homemade Toy Trucks in Mozambique

    When I am in Africa, I am continually amazed by the ingenuity I see:

    Door mats made from rice sacks and fabric scraps, toys made from whatever refuse a child can find on the ground.

    One day I was in the centre when the “aid truck” dropped a pile of old clothing from Holland in the middle of the street. It was a frenzy of activity as the toughest men in town tried to collect as much as possible to resell in the market, and women and children picked for scraps along the edges.

    As an artist and a crafts person, this was very disheartening to watch, because I know what the people are capable of making when given the chance. (Sending our rags to Africa and calling it Aid will have to be a discussion for another day).

    Later the same week, we were meeting with our women’s groups, when a mother came in with three matching children’s dresses. She had taken the very large old dress of a Dutch woman, and re-styled it into a series of children’s dresses: two for her daughters, and one more to sell. This is the mother of invention.

    Her problem was what to do with this enormous dress of a decent fabric (that would fit very few women in the village), and use it to serve her own needs.

    Sculpture Project of Biennial of the Americas by Janet Echelman

    “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

    — Albert Einstein

    Suzanne Joyal
    Editorial Advisory Panel
    Mezimbite Magazine

  9. Nigel C-T04-21-2012

    Editor, I am wondering if you had a specific model in mind with the story of the two fishermen? It seems that the “non-linear” form of storytelling is something that is so instinctive and natural for the Indian – or African – oral story-telling tradition.

    But for us Westerners, it is yet another illussion of “imperfection” and hard to digest.

    We need our narratives in perfect linear form. We need to understand (aka be in control – rather than just “be”). Digressing, as you did, to the story of Vishnu and Bali is so playful and engaging – yet a Western writer would have difficulty taking such a detour.


  10. Editor04-21-2012

    “A 2011 favorite in the detective genre, to which I am addicted, was Henning Mankell’s “The Troubled Man,” a conclusion to the exceptional Kurt Wallander series.” – Drew Gilpin Faust, president, Harvard University

    Thanks Nigel. The two fishermen are simply a metaphor for a way many people I have observed in my travels carefully listen to one other – “listening” before understanding.

    I wrote an article called “Listening” which identifies two Western writers that have come to appreciate the transition from linear to non-linear story-telling. Here are excerpts:

    From The Art of Listening by Scandinavian author Henning Mankell.

    For nearly 25 years I’ve lived off and on in Mozambique.

    Time has passed, and I’m no longer young; in fact, I’m approaching old age. But my motive for living this straddled existence, one foot in African sand, the other in European snow, in the melancholy Norrland in Sweden where I grew up, has to do with wanting to see clearly, to understand.

    The simplest way to explain what I’ve learned from my life in Africa is through a parable about why we have two ears but one tongue. Why is this? Probably so we have to listen twice as much as we speak.

    Ancient African Alphabet – designed for Non-Linear Storytelling

    Here is an insight from Henning Mankell, reminiscent of that other fine Western author, Alexander McCall Smith, who also appreciates the rich textures of African storytelling:

    If we are capable of listening, we’re going to discover that many African narratives have completely different structures than we’re used to. I over-simplify, of course. Yet everybody knows that there is truth in what I’m saying: Western literature is normally linear; it proceeds from beginning to end without major digressions in space or time.

    That’s not the case in Africa. Here, instead of linear narrative, there is unrestrained and exuberant storytelling that skips back and forth in time and blends together past and present. Someone who may have died long ago can intervene without any fuss in a conversation between two people who are very much alive. Just as an example.

  11. Nigel C-T04-21-2012

    Well, you see Janet Echelman I know is referring to “artisanry” when she states that:

    “As humans we are not perfectly symmetrical, so I think we feel a sense of connection when we are surrounded by forms that share this imperfect symmetry.”

    But you see, I think this principle applies equally to story narratives. Our symmetrical and linear form of narrative perceives going off on non-linear tangents as idiosyncratic or imperfect. Perhaps we need to reform our idea of “perfection” and be more inclusive.

  12. Editor's Note04-21-2012

    Sir Ken on School Education and Cultivating the Imagination

    Sir Ken

    “Imagination is the source of every form of human achievement. And it’s the one thing that I believe we are systematically jeopardizing in the way we educate our children and ourselves.”

    ― Ken Robinson at TED

  13. Katerina Novikova04-21-2012

    Katerina Novikova
    Большой театр балета
    The Bolshoi Ballet
    Moscow, Russia

    And as the fishermen cast their nets they saw the spectacle of the nets billowing in the wind and they talked about Shiva – as they always did:

    “Ah god Shiva is really dancing tonight! Look at how he is taking our nets and swaying and playing with the rhythm and the ripple of the wind!”

    “That is why he is The Lord of Dance … when Shiva becomes the dancer Nataraja all the cobwebs of consciousness are torn to shreds and all the clogs and congestion that block the Imagination are released and fresh inspiration flows free like a river from The Joy of Dance.”

    The Two Fishermen of Mahabalipuram

    Performing the dance of Shiva, The Lord of the Dance

    Shiva – The Lord of the Dance

    How does Shiva destroy the darkness? Through the intense and pure joy of the dance which is like the bright light cutting the deep darkness into small pieces, into nothing.

    Joy – The Essence of the Dance

    Here at Bolshoi, more than all things dance is the joy. Joy is dance. The practice and the discipline serves the sense of joy and wonder. That is the correct order of priority.

    Dance Teacher and Chief Spokesperson
    Большой театр балета

  14. Kim Gardi Abelman04-22-2012

    “Dance first. Think later. It’s the natural order.”
    Samuel Beckett (1906 – 1989)

    I would like to thank Katya for her enlightening commentary above.

    I love the visual metaphor of the Dance of Shiva being “the bright light cutting the deep darkness“. Katya’s metaphor of light and darkness is the major metaphor at play here.

    The interplay is between good and evil, positive energy and negative complacency – most of all – between timid, time-worn conservatism and bold, fresh, fearless, joyous, magnanimous creativity – of which Janet’s body of artwork is an exemplary example.

    And it is also interesting that “dance” is very often a metaphor for a transition to a form of freedom. In a well-known play from my homeland, South African playwright Athol Fugard’s “Master Harold and the Boys”, ballroom dancing is a metaphor for dancing out of the horrors of Apartheid. The play’s character Sam says to his friend Willie:

    “The secret is to make it look easy.. Ballroom it must look happy.. Ja!…”

    The Unbearable Lightness of Being

    Katya’s light verses darkness is the major metaphor in Janet Echelman’s story.

    There is also a minor metaphor, not as significant as Katya’s, but worth noting:

    Lightness verses heaviness.

    This minor metaphor is clearer when we read this excerpt from Janet Echelman’s bio:

    She soon found the material too heavy and expensive for her Fulbright budget. While watching local fishermen bundling their nets one evening, Echelman began wondering if nets could be a new approach to sculpture: a way to create volumetric form without heavy, solid materials.

    “Heavy and expensive”. Janet had to shed the heavy and expensive version before arriving toward the light (in weight and in brightness). Arriving at the state where the real work can begin – what Milan Kundera would call The Unbearable Lightness of Being.

    The Hero with a Thousand Faces

    Much of the greatest literature and story narratives throughout history, are the journey through this vestibule from the minor to the major metaphor. From shedding the heaviness to re-discovering the light. Janet’s story, in literary and mythological terms, is the epic journey or “Hero’s Journey” as the late Joseph Campbell might have put it.

    The Hero undergoes the minor metaphor of tragedy and loss – losing a sense of confidence and face as a Fulbright lecturer and accomplished Harvard graduate; having her pre-conceived plans of working with heavy bronze casters frustrated and fall apart.

    It is a form of reduction. Reductive and deconstructive. The slate is all wiped clean.
    The Hero is reduced to nothing of her former status and confidence. New beginnings.

    And in that void, on that point in her journey when she has “lost” everything she holds dear in material terms she discovers the vestibule, a new path. An undiscovered path to a fresh form of invigorating expression: a rebirth (or a Renaissance), or what in Biblical terms is a resurrection, or in Hindu or Buddhist terms is a reincarnation or Samsara.

    “You cannot travel the path until you have become the path itself”

    Hindu Prince Gautama Siddharta, founder of Buddhism (563-483 BC)

    In Janet’s case, the entering of this new pathway, began at Mahabalipuram beach – from there her Hero’s journey can be documented through her prolific public artwork.

    Imperfection is Beautiful

    Janet says above:

    I’ve always been drawn to hand-made artisanry, as I find beauty in the idiosyncracy of its imperfect geometry.

    The word “imperfect” is a word that we in the West are very uncomfortable with. We see “imperfect” as deconstructive. We see linear plans, projects, programs as constructive.

    In “hand-made artisanry” we might call something that is non-symmetrical “imperfect”.

    In playwrighting we call a non-symmetrical play “absurdist”. Like Pirandello’s plays.

    “There is no perfection only life”
    Milan Kundera, The Unbearable Lightness Of Being

    Listening to Africa

    We covered this ground in a previous post. In the context of African Development we have said that development models conceived in the Ivory Tower do not translate well on the ground in local, rural communities in Africa. I was born and I grew up in Africa.

    I can attest to that development disconnect from not listening to Africa.

    What Allan Schwarz did with Mezimbite, what Suzanne Joyal (who is currently working with rural women in Zambia) is doing with Jumpstart is to “quietly, patiently listen”.

    Not to plan in some Western University or Think Tank, but to go on the ground to the local people and “listen” and understand what the local needs are. And then thoughtfully build a development model around that. Quietly, patiently, respectfully “listen” to Africa.

    Quietly Listening to Africa

    Shakespearean actor Jeremy Geidt has played several characters in Luigi Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author, at both the Yale Rep and the American Repertory Theatre (ART) at Harvard. Jeremy – in a previous post (Comment #75):

    African development models need to be developed with the people they are being developed for – not the people who feel comfortable with formulaic templates. There is an irony that those in the West that are in fact willing to deconstruct their constrained and formulaic thinking are often considered outliers in society. Absurdists of African development.

    Luigi Pirandello was actually considered a member of the Théâtre de l’Absurde along with Eugène Ionesco, Jean Genet, Harold Pinter, Tom Stoppard, Friedrich Dürrenmatt, Fernando Arrabal, Edward Albee.

    The only reason I mention this is that I imagine that the unconventional and de-constructivist approach that Allan Schwarz has taken would makes him a natural member of the African Development de l’Absurde.

    … So who will write the play “African Development de l’Absurde”?… Any volunteers for director, and cast, make up lighting? I will volunteer the stage design and construction.

    Allan Schwarz responding to Jeremy’s absurd suggestion

    Editor’s Note

    Jeremy Geidt is a member of our Editorial Advisory Panel.

    He trained at the Old Vic Theatre School in London, UK and was a founding member of both The Yale Rep and the American Rep Theatre (ART) at Harvard. Jeremy teaches at Harvard University. He received the Eliot Norton Award for Outstanding Boston Actor.

    One Character – Janet – in Search of an Author

    Janet’s story is very Pirandellosque !

    As in Six Characters in Search of an Author by Luigi Pirandello…

    Like a skilled actor just needing a part, all Janet was in search of was an author to write that role for her. And what she essentially discovered on the beach at Mahabalipuram is that once she received the inspiration she would have to write her own journey. That is the deconstructive – and then reconstructive – transition that Pirandello subtly implies.

    The Deconstruction of Roles and Rules

    We can write our own roles and embark upon the uncharted journey they summon, once we dismantle the idea that we are beholden to roles and rules that others write for us.

    Do we wish to write our own roles, or do we wish others (social rules) to write it for us?

    “Our spirits have their own private way of understanding each other, of becoming intimate, while our external persons are still trapped in the commerce of ordinary words, in the slavery of social rules.”
    Luigi Pirandello (1867 – 1936)

    The Reconstruction of Purpose: Janet finally finds Beckett’s Godot

    In that other “absurdist” play – Waiting for Godot – we have the same basic tenet as Pirandello’s – it is deconstructive. There are no traditional and conventional structures to lean upon. We must confront the void. The abyss. Will anything emerge from it?

    Well, we could just say we shall wait, and wait, and wait, and wait…

    But if we keep waiting, and waiting then nothing may ever “happen”.

    Because we need to be the event. The event is not outside of us. It is within.

    The wind was always blowing. Fishing nets were always billowing about in the wind.

    We can imagine that even in Biblical times and centuries before that, this was the case. The Apostle John and Apostle Simon were ordinary, simple fisherman too, very much like The Two Fisherman of Mahabalipuram. I am certain that Simon and Andrew witnessed their fishing nets billow in the wind. Even if they did not know Lord Shiva!

    This is not an original concept. Janet did not stumble upon an historical discovery.

    Anyone who has eyes could have seen what Janet saw at Mahabalipuram beach.

    What is original, what is brave, is for Janet to be part of the event. To own it. To let go of her preconceived fears and doubts and say “yes” this event is part of me, and I can make something beautiful out of it. From within. “I can do it“. It is at that point of realization that Janet meets Beckett’s Godot. That she finally finds Pirandello’s author.

    She is the author. That’s the riddle. There is nobody else out there. That’s the answer.

    “Nobody can teach me who I am.”
    Chinua Achebe

    The Butterfly Now Emerges

    “I wish to become acquainted with the butterflies.”
    Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince

    Janet’s journey is what Beckett and Pirandello implicitly designed by deconstructive playwrighting: That our own selves have room to struggle, metamorphose and emerge out of our cocoon and take flight. Struggle is necessary – it strengthens our wingspan.

    “I saw the angel in the marble and carved until I set him free.”
    Michelangelo Buonarroti (1475–1564)

    “I Can Do It”

    Historian William Manchester explores one simple question (just one question!)…

    How was the transition made from almost 1,000 years of the Dark Ages – the Medieval Mind – of superstition, fear, lack of innovation, lack of inspiration, lack of originality, lack of joy – to the Renaissance Mind?

    How was this Hero’s journey accomplished? The long title of his short book is this:

    A World Lit Only by Fire: The Medieval Mind and Renaissance: Portrait of an Age

    The answer to the question that this book asks can be summarized in 4 words:

    “I Can Do It”.

    Whether it was a humble guildsman, a stained glassman or master fresco painter… an infectious sense of power and inspiration penetrated the hearts of these artists. Rather like the inspiration of billowing fishing nets for Janet. Artists accepted and owned their inspiration. They did not fear it or doubt it any longer. They affirmed their own abilities:

    “I Can Do It”.

    And because of this mindful commitment, the foreboding spirit of the Dark Ages – the Medieval Mindvanished for good – as Katya might also say of Art – as in Dance:

    Through the intense, pure joy of [Art] which is like the bright light [Renaissance] cutting the darkness [Medieval Mind] into nothing.

    That was a powerful event because once the cobwebs of consciousness were cleared, William Manchester explains, there emerged limitless potential for artistic expression.

    Manchester validates this glorious period of creativity through this insight on Page 87:

    Five centuries after Michelangelo, Raphael, Botticelli, and Titian, nothing matching their masterpieces can be found in contemporary galleries.

    No pandering to popular tastelessness and philistine taboos guided the brushes and chisels of men who found immortality in the Renaissance.

    William Manchester (1922 – 2004)

    Editor’s Note

    Kim Gardi Abelman is a member of our Editorial Advisory Panel. She was born in Johannesburg. Kim holds a PhD in Italian Renaissance Literature from the School Of Modern Languages And Literature, University of the Witwatersrand, South Africa.

  15. Keith Recker04-24-2012

    Keith Recker
    HAND/EYE Magazine

    I’ve worked in the craft world since the mid-80s — as a crunchy non-profit do-gooder, as a profit-driven merchant for big US retailers, as a collector, and now as editor of HAND/EYE Magazine. In each role, craft has managed both to fascinate me and challenge me. It has been one of a few constants in my life for almost 30 years now.


    Because it runs counter-current to the fast-and-easy game the world has been playing with its natural and cultural resources. It is not much governed by global commerce because it comes from a deeper, older, richer, more inconvenient place: It generally wells up out of an ancient combination of necessity and expression.

    Craft came into being in the course of making useful objects — but because we are human, what we make bears the burden not only of function but of form, and craft very quickly demonstrates the fingerprint of culture.

    “The World’s Earliest Artist Studio”

    Researchers in South Africa have discovered what may have been the world’s earliest artist’s studio. A 100,000-year-old workshop used to mix and store the reddish pigment ochre has been discovered in Blombos Cave on the rugged southern coast near Cape Town. At the same site, scientists have found some of the earliest sharp stone tools, as well …

    A South African archeological site shows 100,000 year-old evidence of ochre pigments whose ornamental function is in little doubt. Our deeply human demand for beauty, for individually resonant and communally relevant visual experience, drove us into self-expression, into craft, into art. It still does. Because craft exists largely outside of mainstream commerce, it maintains its role in human expression with a purity and simplicity not often seen. At least that’s how I see it and experience it. I am not alone.

    Octavio Paz commented on craft in a way that explains its compellingly expressive, connective potential:

    “Made by hand, the craft object bears the fingerprints, real or metaphorical, of the person who fashioned it. These fingerprints are not the equivalent of the artist’s signature, for they are not a name. Nor are they a mark or a brand. They are a sign: the almost invisible scar commemorating our original brotherhood or sisterhood.”

    I feel this connection. It makes craft unavoidable for me. It makes it central to my exploration of who we once were, who we are now, and even of where we might end up.

    Keith and Katya and Caves

    Keith talks about Art Studios in caves and Katya cave-echos back about Dancing

    What is this thing dance?

    Well, if we go to the earliest cave paintings in Africa we see that quite often the painters painted characters who were dancing, whose feet were in flight with sense of joy. Now why this is? This is because from very earliest man we have a natural inclination to do the dance. Dance is something very natural and very powerful as a raw energy and impulse in our being. Dance is state of being, a power. – Katya, The Bolshoi Ballet

    The Dancing San Cave Paintings

    The Inanke cave is one of hundreds of shelters decorated by the San people (commonly called !Kung Bushmen) who loved to dance. It is located in Matobo National Park, southern Zimbabwe, an area best-known in recent years as a sanctuary for the white and black rhinoceros.

    As with Art and with Dance so it is with Music: The Standard of Ur

    We can trace back the origins of our human interest in music at least as far back as 2,600 BC with the discovery of the Sumerian artifact known as the Standard of Ur, a hollow wooden box with a lapis lazuli, shell and red limestone inlay. Part of the Ur artifact photographed below depicts two Mesopotamian musicians, a lyre player and singer, circa 2,400-2,600 BC .

    Editor’s Note

    Keith Recker is a member of the Mezimbite Magazine’s Editorial Advisory Panel.

    He is a graduate of Carnegie-Mellon University and has an MA in American Literature from University of Michigan. Keith is the Founder and Editor of HAND/EYE Magazine:

    HAND/EYE is a print and online publication that includes stories about dynamic and creative people whose work embraces and challenges the disciplines of art, fashion, craft, philanthropy, and advances the notion of enlightened consumption.

    HAND/EYE also has a core interest in international art, craft, and design, particularly when design and artisanry become tools for economic development, social and environmental progress. The magazine also examines innovative and ethical retail practices as a force for more enlightened and informative consumerism, and looks at NGO programs addressing artisan income generation and community well-being.

    Keith writes for Mez Mag and is prone to banter with the Editor on awesome issues.

    He wrote an article for us on the revival of ancient craft cultures of the !Kung Bushmen of the Kalahari – an example of the craft traditions that Janet now explores with us:

    I see craft traditions as vessels of wisdom– because they hold aesthetic and structural knowledge passed down from generation to generation. Because the techniques and ideas have been distilled over the centuries, only the essential remains. — Janet Echelman

    Excerpt from Keith’s article entitled Emerging Bushmen (photos by Boo George):

    The Ancient Bushmen enter the International Jewelry Market

    The Bushmen of the Kalahari Desert are almost as old as humanity itself. Geneticists say that they are perhaps the oldest group walking the earth.

    Sadly, like many ancient peoples, they are among the poorest and most disenfranchised in their southern African homeland. Poverty notwithstanding, for countless generations the Bushmen have made beautiful jewelry to adorn themselves and their loved ones, mostly using local materials that would otherwise go to waste.

    The ancient ways of The Bushmen of the Kalahari already embrace what we think of as up to date notions about eco-friendliness and sustainability.

    Largely isolated from the outside world until the last century, they created (and still create today) intricate pieces using wild seeds, sticks, bone, tortoiseshell, and most importantly of all, beads painstakingly hand made from shards of ostrich eggshell.

    With ingenuity and precision, the women turn some of the beads a rich brown by frying them – or often a rich black by roasting them – in order to have three colors of beads with which to make patterns and designs.

  16. Summer Rayne Oakes04-25-2012

    Janet’s writing reminds me of the first time I felt as a young child mesmerized by the (im)perfection of a blade of grass. I recall how I felt in that moment, scribbling down my thoughts about the beauty of the bug-chewed leaf – and drawing that out to the splendor of the slightly untamed environment around me.

    Growing up in the United States, we are taught – through Western conventions and glossy advertising – to want perfectly packaged product – whether it is the view from a condominium, in a perfectly ripened beefsteak tomato, in a vessel for the table, or in a Photoshopped celebrity body – when really the intrigue and perfection lies in the idiosyncracies, the inconsistencies, and those imperfections that make people, product and items charming, memorable and special.

    I have been firsthand witness of the work that Mezimbite does – their appreciation for discipline and craft (here’s a photograph of a bowl crafted by the Mezimbite artisans):

    Imperfections are not to be confused with quality.

    There is a rigorous care and attention to detail and quality control (a vase has to stand upright, doesn’t it?) but the charm and the personal touch that every artisan adds to the products that they make are allowed to shine through.

    That is the real luxury – that is the real human-ness that I believe we are looking to connect with… we all just don’t know it yet.

    Editor’s Note

    Summer Rayne Oakes is a member of Mez Mag’s Editorial Advisory Panel.

    Summer is Co-Founder and Chief Creative Officer of Source4Style.

    Note that Summer pioneered the documentation of the Mezimbite Forest Centre. By writing prolific editorials about this sustainable community Summer brought world-wide attention to Mezimbite. Years before Mez Mag, before this Editor and his Editorial Panel showed up; there was Summer earnestly, energetically promoting Mezimbite’s Development Model which is today endorsed by economists at Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard. Our Editorial Advisory Panel is grateful to Summer for her pioneering editorials.

    In addition, over the past 7 years Summer traveled numerous times to Mozambique to work closely with Allan to find international markets for Mezimbite artisan products.

    Here is a photo of Summer planting trees at Mezimbite Forest Centre

    Here is a bio of Summer that appears in the Huffington Post:

    Summer Rayne Oakes is a model-activist, author of bestselling style guide Style Naturally, and co-founder of Source4Style, a B2B online marketplace that connects designers directly to sustainable suppliers around the world.

    She has developed more environmentally-preferable collections with a variety of brands, including Payless ShoeSource’s zoe&zac line, Portico Home & Spa, and an eyewear brand with MODO called eco by Summer Rayne Oakes. Her unique positioning as both a brand ambassador and environmental strategist keeps her busy on and off camera, advising and consulting on various aspects of design, production and practice.

    Vanity Fair named Oakes a “Global Citizen,” Outside called her a “Top Environmental Activist,” while CNBC named her one of the “Top 10 Green Entrepreneurs of 2010.”

    Summer Rayne is a graduate of Cornell University.

    She has degrees in Environmental Science and Entomology, is a Udall environmental scholar, a National Wildlife Federation Fellow and a PERC Environmental Fellow.

  17. Thomas Thwaites04-29-2012

    “Imagination is more important than knowledge. For knowledge is limited to all we now know and understand, while imagination embraces the entire world, and all there ever will be to know and understand.”

    – Albert Einstein

    Well, I find myself in agreement with Einstein (yes, for once!).

    Thank you to Suzanne for that quotation…

    So, imagination is fundamental to much of what it is to be a human – it enables us to access our history and our future, as well of course places and times we’ve never been to: just ‘because’, or because they don’t exist.

    Without imagination, how can we imagine an alternative?

    I think Suzanne’s point (and Janet’s TED Talk premise) that imagination is a tool is very interesting. It immediately prompted in my mind the question of how this ‘tool’ is ‘directed’. I mean we don’t go around blindly hitting things with a hammer just for the hell of it, we use it in a very directed way depending on what goal we want to achieve – to hit the end of a chisel to shape a piece of wood for instance.

    So how do we ‘direct’ our imaginations?

    Faced with the same stick and stone, different people will imagine different uses to which they could be put.

    A stick and a stone could become the game of golf (or baseball for that matter), or a way to break bones, or a poetic piece of sculpture perhaps, or a means to call a meeting to order, to make music, create fire… the list goes on and on. While it’s probably better no matter who you are to invent a missile and club when faced with a hostile mob – the game of baseball might work too.

    Faced with fishing nets in Mahabalipuram Beach in India, Janet sort of ‘directed’ her imagination to find a use for them in her work as an artist.

    I don’t mean ‘directed’ in some mechanical top-down sense (as in “now, there are some nets, how can I use them for my own purposes?”).

    Rather that the values and interests she’d developed led her to being able to use her imagination to come up with this novel use of these old nets, to (eventually!) bring a sense of awe and poetry to people all over the world.

    (Apologies if warranted Janet, for postulating about your private inner-thought process!).

    So what I’m trying to say in a roundabout kind of way, is that imagination, while integral, isn’t the full picture – it’s also the purposes to which we turn it.

    That of course depends on our situation (‘necessity being the mother of invention’ – as Suzanne reminds us – and all that), but also what we aspire to. Do we use this amazing tool to invent ways to increase our material wealth, or to come up with novel systems … and things that have as their goal some other additional positive aspect…? – as Allan Schwarz has done with Mezimbite Forest Centre in Mozambique for instance…?

  18. Editor's Note04-29-2012

    The Two TED Talks on Art and Design

    Two TED talks that our editorial panel recommends enthusiastically to you are:

    1. Janet Echelman’s TED Talk
    2. Thomas Thwaites’ TED Talk

    Thomas Thwaites

    Thomas Thwaites is a member of Mez Mag’s Editorial Advisory Panel.

    Thomas is currently a Fellow and Resident at the Akademie Schloss Solitude in Stuttgart, Germany. Here is some background on Thomas from his website:

    I’m a designer (of a more speculative sort), interested in technology, science and futures research, as well as communicating complex subjects in engaging ways.

    I graduated from the Royal College of Art Design Interactions MA in 2009, and have since undertaken a number of commissioned projects, including work on social trends, futures forecasting, biotechnology, the history and philosophy of science and bicycles.

    I, Pencil

    Thomas and I are currently working on an exciting article together on the history and global relevance of the lead pencil of which we are both enthusiasts. Pencils! I ask you – is there anything more fascinating? It all began when I read this on Thomas’s website:

    I now know about the essay I, Pencil, written from the perspective of a pencil ‘as told to Leonard E. Read’, and I think it’s fantastic!

    “Fantastic!”. Yes, I could not agree more Thomas. A man after my own heart!

    I, too, had been cherishing this riveting essay by Read. Thomas has suggested we might even write our article in pencil. We shall attempt to keep our handwriting legible…

    Winding up Thomas

    I have developed a devious hobby – it is called “winding up Thomas“.

    Thomas is so open-minded and “game” for anything, that it is hard to not resist pushing the boundaries with him. When he and I worked on our first interview I imagine Thomas expected a technical, engineering-type question from me because he knew I had studied at MIT. Instead, I came up with the most convoluted question imaginable:

    “Thomas, how does The Toaster Project relate to Hotspur’s concern about new technologies in Shakespeare’s play Henry IV, Part I?”

    Being Thomas, he was a great sport about it – he soldiered through and he answered the question with clarity, insight and humor. He even brushed up on his Shakespeare.

    I recently wound him up again: Citing him Janet Echelman’s magnificent photos of her exquisite craftsmanship, I sent Thomas a wind-up email about his “toaster” (see below):

    “Thomas, you are, without a doubt, perhaps the worst craftsperson known to mankind. Your ‘toaster’ is the most hideous and abysmal monstrosity our editorial panel has ever had the dubious pleasure of witnessing.”

    That was me winding up Thomas. Of course, that was not fair.

    Thomas did not ever set out to “craft” a toaster.

    His original intention is clearly explained in this Boston Globe article – an excerpt:

    To be fair, Thwaites didn’t set out to make toast when he began building his device; he set out to make a point.

    The idea was to reverse-engineer the cheapest toaster he could find. He would take the thing apart, fiddle with its constituent parts, then try to build a toaster of his own, obtaining and refining each of the requisite raw materials, all without using modern technology.

    “It’s that fantasy 14-year-old boys have,” he says. “What if I found myself marooned on a strange planet? What if the world came to an end? Would I be able to survive?” His experiment is documented in a new book:

    The Toaster Project:
    Or a Heroic Attempt to Build a Simple Electric Appliance from Scratch.”

    To be even more fair (and accurate), Thomas is an accomplished artist in his own right – here is one of his Welcome Trust sponsored art installations in a series entitled:

    Unlikely Objects: Products of a Counterfactual History of Science

    It is a fascinating art series whereby Thomas Thwaites the Artist, applies the “tool” of imagination to create a “Choose your Own” genetics history. In Thomas’ own words:

    Scientific knowledge has played a key role in shaping our material world, and especially with regard to genetics, our social, political and spiritual lives also.

    But how dependant is scientific knowledge on historical accident and chance? Could we have a different, and not necessarily less valid, version of scientific truth if history had played out slightly differently – if certain observations had been made or missed, if individual scientists had been more or less successful, if different accidents had occurred? Or, does the scientific method act to eliminate the effects of historical chance, and our present state of knowledge is somehow necessarily true?

    Unlikely Objects explores these questions through a ‘Choose Your Own’ history of genetics, and the presentation of some more, or less, likely objects from imagined alternative histories of genetics.


    This post is complete. We can now close out the comment section with these two bookends:

    On the one end, we have Janet’s poetic and aesthetic imagination informing her art; while on the other end, we have Thomas’ imagination about the potential of science and genetics informing his own art.

    The common denominator between Janet and Thomas is fearless, joyous persistence and perseverance in challenging our pre-conceived human limitations and concepts in a manner that is compelling and enlightening.

  19. Karim05-01-2012

    Thanks Janet
    Janet – who’d have thunk it? You and I taking Ross’s VES-150 class at the Carpenter Center in the late 1980’s and now working on this article all these years later? Thanks!