Teaching Craft Traditions

593px Janet Echelman With Sculpture Prototype

Teaching Craft Traditions

Question from Karim

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.

Janet's artwork at San Francisco International Airport

Janet’s artwork at San Francisco International Airport

Editor’s Note on Adversity and Triumph

Life does not always go as we might plan.

This is something that has informed Janet Echelman’s perspectives on life and art.

Her perfect plan to deliver her Fulbright lecture program and painting exhibit was unintentionally railroaded and sabotaged – her paints never arrived…

How beautiful is that?

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.

Like the Dance of Shiva, whose dance playfully triumphs over all adversity.

How beautiful.

It seems that it is not what happens to you that matters – it is how you respond and what you make of the adversity. This is true of Janet’s experience which is why I find her story authentically inspiring and full of life lessons.

In fact, Janet’s undaunted example helped me to gain my own resolve in relaunching the Brick Project after the adversity of the Porte Farm, Zimbabwe bulldozing (read: Legacy of The Brick Project) essentially shut the project down several years ago. Janet’s TED Talk above, is also a valuable lesson for Brick Project Teachers: it is about cultivating imagination and adopting an innovative and a fresh viewpoint toward every creative endeavor. And never, ever giving up.

Triumph over Adversity!

Triumph over Adversity!

Sweet are the uses of adversity,
Which, like the toad, ugly and venomous,
Wears yet a precious jewel in his head;
And this our life, exempt from public haunt,
Finds tongues in trees, books in the running brooks,
Sermons in stones, and good in every thing.

As You Like It, Act ii, Scene i

William Shakespeare

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…

In the next post on “Teacher Thoughts” entitled “Teaching Storytelling Traditions” I shall offer a Sanskrit Storytelling rendition of your experience in India.

I feel like we’re back in college and taking a class at the Carpenter Center!