JOQ with Janet
Just One Question
Why was it important for you to study craft traditions and collaborate with artisans?
Response from Janet
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.
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.
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.
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…
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…”
“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)