To the Skies
- Janet Echelman’s giant sculptures are the net result of technology, engineering, and civic engagement.
- Arturo Rios discovered his true passion while working in a hat maker’s mail room. Since time immemorial, we’ve been using art to cope with our inevitable fate.
- Justin Bettman uses found materials to create public “sets” for his portraits.
Justin Bettman is a fine art and commercial photographer best known for his Set in the Street project. For this series, he created elaborate living spaces made from discarded materials and furniture on the streets of New York; after using them as a backdrop for his own photography shoots, he left them for the public to take their own photos.
Born and raised in Northern California, Bettman moved to New York to work as an advertising art director and commercial photographer. Lacking studio space for his own art photography, he started his Set in the Street project in 2014. Now based in Los Angeles, he works as a commercial, editorial, and fine art photographer for major clients in media and advertising.
Janet Echelman is an award-winning sculptor known for her large-scale fiber artworks.
Born in 1966 in Tampa, Florida, Echelman graduated from Harvard University and studied Chinese brush painting and calligraphy in Hong Kong. While living in India on a Fulbright scholarship, Echelman observed fishermen bundling their nets and was inspired to create elaborate fiber-based net-like sculptures.
She created her first monumental permanent outdoor sculpture in Porto, Portugal, in 2005. Using custom-built software and space-age materials, she has since created temporary and permanent works in Seattle, San Francisco, Vancouver, Denver, Phoenix, and elsewhere. Among her many awards, she received a Guggenheim Fellowship in Fine Arts (2011), Architectural Digest magazine’s Innovator award (2012), and an American Ingenuity Award from Smithsonian magazine (2014).
Arturo Rios is a world-famous milliner who has created custom headwear for such celebrities as Cardi B, Tyra Banks, Lady Gaga, Juliette Lewis, Jennifer Lopez, Katy Perry, Rihanna, and Princess Theodora of Greece.
Born in Mexico, Rios was living in Los Angeles when he met Italian hat designer Karen Indreland. After working in the shipping department of her hat-making company, Rios began to design his own headwear, founding his own studio in 2005.
A fixture at the Kentucky Derby and on international runways, his avant-garde sculptural headpieces have been featured in Vogue, Harper’s Bazaar, Marie Claire, and other fashion magazines.
- Art & Design
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Coming up on Articulate, Janet Echelman’s giant net sculptures are the fruit of an artistic process encompassing technology, engineering, and civic engagement.
Janet Echelman: I care about art being part of life. I don’t want it to be shut away inside a box where only certain people feel entitled to go there.
What began as nine to five job in the shipping department of a hat maker quickly became a life’s vocation or the Mexican American owner, Arturo Rios.
Arturo Rios: I always see myself having my hats in magazines, people wearing them, but I was insecure because I wasn’t sure that will happen.
The 1507 horse armor of Duke Ulrich of Württemberg is the only surviving work of the master craftsman Wilhelm von Worms. It’s now the oldest intact horse armor in the western hemisphere.
Dirk Breiding: In terms of art, this is a great masterpiece.
Humanity’s greatest fear is not the unknown, it’s the certainty of death and we’ve been dealing with it artistically since time immemorial.
Joanna Ebenstein: This idea that death is something exotic and scary is so new.
And Justin Bettman’s fine art photography took flight when he began using recycled materials to make disposable sets. The images had staying power.
Justin Bettman: I wanted to make a project that virtually anyone could have done and I wanted to use primarily found furniture so anyone could have found it.
That’s all ahead on Articulate.
Janet Echelman’s elaborate aerial net sculptures fuse ancient craft with modern technology to create massive works that are strong enough to withstand a hurricane, but soft enough to draw city dwellers into unexpected moments of tranquility.
Janet Echelman: We are in need of the experience of softness in our lives. I want to be in a city and feel a soft billowing presence above my head. We are building our world with hard edges and hard materials and glass and steel and concrete, and I love those materials. They become a foil. It’s like counterpoint in music. One becomes more soft because the other is so hard.
I use five different fibers and I use them differently. When a spider weaves a web, it doesn’t have the same silk in the different parts of the web. They use a structural silk for the parts that come out from the center, and the circular parts are very light and sticky silk. And so, in the same way, the parts of my sculpture that are pulled taut and carry the structural load are made of a very strong fiber. It’s stronger than steel—15 times stronger than steel. I braid a core of the strong fiber, and then I braid a sleeve of the protective layer from the sun so that I can have the best of the function of each material.
But she doesn’t do it alone. To manifest these grand ideas, Echelman depends on the skills of a team of designers and engineers. In addition, it took the giant software company Autodesk three years to develop the program now used at Studio Echelman. The modeling tool allows them to forecast how a sculpture will interact with gravity, wind, and the city’s surrounding architecture.
Echelman: We wanted to build sculptures at the scale of cities and you can’t do that with hand models. I’m an artist who wants to see things happen and the tools don’t exist, so I realized I’ll either be limited or I have to make my own tools.
It all began in 1997 when Echelman was awarded a Fulbright to make art in Mahabalipuram, an Indian fishing village renowned for its sculpture. Though she was to give painting demonstrations in the community, her supplies never arrived from the U.S. Then one evening, watching local fisherman bundle their nets, she discovered the material that would become the genesis of her public art. But ideas that would become monumental in scale began at the microscopic level.
Echelman: I learned about these early lifeforms that were all one cell thick—the Precambrian era—and with that constraint of design, there were this incredible variety of forms. And that was the constraint I set for myself in my first sculpture. What can you do when you’re just surface area?
Janet Echelman has always been a dreamer. Her latest piece, 2017’s Dream Catcher, was built as the connecting tissue between two new Los Angeles hotels.
Echelman: The Dream Catchers are on four levels and then it’s the first time I’m doing multiple forms pulling between them. And it’s this interplay because it’s on the Sunset Strip in West Hollywood, where everyone goes to capture their dream. But what really became the inspiration was looking at the monitoring of brain waves. And suddenly, when you reach that deep sleep, REM sleep, they go crazy! It’s not one color. It’s always changing, just as our thoughts are. Just as our brain waves are.
Janet Echelman was always set on becoming an artist, though at the outset it wasn’t clear what that would mean.
Echelman: It’s not like I planned this. I knew I wanted to be an artist, and I think it would feel like dying if I couldn’t. So, it makes the choice really easy. There were times when I wanted to make work but nobody wanted to see it. And now I have the problem that we get so many calls and I have to figure out which projects to take. Really, I respond to interesting design challenges and interesting invitations to make art.
When she does accept an invitation, it can take years of planning and millions of dollars to bring it to fruition. And when it does all finally come together, Echelman says her greatest joy is in experiencing the work first hand.
Echelman: The reason I’m doing this is because I care about art being part of life. I don’t want it to be shut away inside a box where only certain people feel entitled to go there. It should just infuse our everyday—when you’re walking to work, on your lunch break. Some of the peak moments of my life are lying down under the work and discovering the sky breathing, you know, as the piece moved. It slows down the patterns and eddies of wind. I think I build these things because I want to lie down underneath them.
This is a hat. But this is a fascinator. Though they’ve been around since the 1960s, the term for these wild headpieces was only coined in the 1990s. And, since then, women all over the world have been using them to stand out in some very elegant crowds. And though the British royal wedding in 2011 led to a spike in their popularity, the quintessential showcase for fascinators is still the races: Dubai, Melbourne, Royal Ascot, Kentucky. And if these women remind you a little of peacocks, it’s because they are competing. Each race offers a grand prize for the best hat. But, win or lose, for milliner to the stars Arturo Rios, it’s all about feel.
Arturo Rios: I want some of my customers to find their personality, because, with the personality, the hat will shine.
And Rios knows a thing or two about completing a look. Since 2005, his pieces have been featured in magazines, music videos, and on red carpets.
Rios: I think everybody has a talent, but we need to find it. Particularly, myself, I think I found it.
Growing up, Arturo Rios never guessed that his destiny would be to make fancy headgear for the rich and famous. He was introduced to high-end hats while working in the shipping department of a Los Angeles hat designer. But he didn’t seriously consider it as a career until he was asked to help with production.
Rios: Cutting feathers, or blocking bases, or things like that, and then, eventually, I noticed that I was good. I mean, I felt like I was doing a really good job. I felt like I need to go express more myself because I was making hats for her, but they were more classy hats. They were beautiful but simple. After I started making hats, I envision myself to go something more fashion-forward. I always see myself having my hats in magazines, people wearing them, but I was insecure because I wasn’t sure that that will happen. But at the same time, something was telling me, “Okay, you gotta do it, you wanna make it.”
And he was right. His own avant-garde sculptural headpieces would soon be worn by some of the music business’s most adventurous stars.
Rios: Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Katy Perry, several other ones.
AJC: But, I mean, Lady Gaga is somebody who can wear a hat.
Rios: Yes, when I start making hats, you know, when I make the huge pieces, I was always thinking, “Oh, I wish Lady Gaga would wear those pieces.” But in my mind—or, or my hair, I don’t know—I always had been thinking that she will wear them one day. But I didn’t know when. One day, I got the email, and it say, “Oh, we’re styling Lady Gaga for this music video.” And then I say, “Well, this is it.”
Rios: And then, I sent the hats, and she didn’t wear them. So, it was…I was a little bit disappointed. But, at the same time, it gave me a little bit of strength. I said, “Well, maybe next time.” You know? Months later, I got another email again, and that’s when I say, “Well, I’m gonna send a bunch of designs or samples to her, and then, just, let’s wear them and see what happens.” And in the end, she wore one of my hats on one of her videos. And then, eventually, years later, I’ve been making hats for her.
And though the high fashion world that these creations occupy seems far removed from his rural upbringing, Rios says his roots are there in every piece.
Rios: I love birds. I love trees. Everything, it’s related with nature. Everything that I have designed so far, through all these years, is been nature. I’m from the small town in Mexico, and we have nature in the backyard. I mean, it’s always fresh, the smells, the sounds, everything—it’s nature. And that’s my number one source of inspiration.
Ultimately, Arturo Rios is driven by the satisfaction of proving, over and over again, that sometimes, the right fascinator is all it takes to make somebody a little more fascinating.
Rios: When they are trying a hat on, they are like, “Oh, no, I don’t like it. Oh, no, that’s too big. Oh, no.” And when you just put it on, and you can tell a customer’s right away, the way that they stand with their backs, their heads out, their smile. So, that’s what I do, I mean, I wanna see them. You can see the posture right away. Once they have the hat on, they kinda lean up, and they are like, you know, and they smile. So, that’s what I see all the time, and then I love it.
Dirk Breiding: This armor is special. It is one of the earliest complete horse armors to survive. This is incredibly well constructed, well made. The way the plates are shaped, they would’ve helped to protect the Duke’s horse in battle, no doubt about it. But it is then this sort of playful setting off with a very flimsy, transitory type of decoration. The decoration is incredibly fragile. In terms of art this is a great masterpiece.
As the world becomes increasingly secular, traditional religious rituals seem to offer less and less comfort, even though it turns out people are just about as anxious as ever about their own mortality.
There’s this thing that’s going to happen to each of us that we’re not allowed to talk about or think about or have any interest in or it makes us weird and bad.
Not that Joanna Ebenstein feels in any way weird or bad about her lifelong fascination with all things morbid and when she decided to research the ways that high culture throughout history has dealt with death.
Joanna Ebenstein: By looking at all these images of death you really start to overwhelmingly feel that we are the outliers here, not the rest of history. In our culture in an unprecedented way, death has disappeared from public view and it’s an unknown. I think it’s scary because we don’t see it and it’s not a part of everyday life.
And what’s so interesting is until 1910, that our way of looking at the world wasn’t even possible. Three in five kids died before reaching adulthood, in the Victorian age, we killed our own meat, people died at home. Like, this idea that death is something exotic and scary is so new.
Ebenstein organized her findings into a blog, which later became a library, and eventually a museum, before returning to her own personal collection. A great number of them are known as memento mori, objects created with the intention of reminding the viewer that they too will one day die.
Ebenstein: They go back to at least the Roman age, but the way we think about them’s a Christian conception and basically the idea is to urge you to contemplate death so that when you die you are ready to meet your maker and not go to Hell, so to live a more pious life on Earth. In the Baroque era, it became really popular to have little objects for home use, not just for church or cemetery that would remind you that you would die. So, it was suggested that you might even have a memento mori maxims painted on your wall at home or you might have a watch or a cane head or art or up shade our little skulls in different things.
There was also Ars Moriendi, or the Art of Dying Well, a sort of illustrated instruction manual for do it yourself last rights. It was circulated widely as the Bubonic Plague ravaged Europe and there weren’t enough priests to go around. But of all the objects Ebenstein has encountered her favorite is this, the handcrafted anatomical Venus.
Ebenstein: The best known ones are made in 18th century Florence, Italy to be the center piece of the first truly public science museum that was open to everyone for free, men, women, and children, but now only 200 years later it’s completely beyond our comprehension and that really interests me. This idea of death and beauty being oxymoronic or paradoxical is new.
New and possibly already obsolete. Artist Caitlin McCormack is part of a movement of young people interested in old ways in thinking about death. McCormack used her own crocheted skeletal sculptures as a way to process her grandmother’s descent into Alzheimer’s and eventual death.
Caitlin McCormack: I started crocheting because I needed the meditative, repetitive thing to sort of get lost in and that mirrored the repetitive way we were constantly reminding her of everything in her life because she was forgetting everything so quickly.
AJC: We all want this to be a happy ending, but was it cathartic for you to do this with at the back of your mind the knowledge that this was honoring them?
McCormack: Yes. In doing this and developing this process I realized that the reason I make these pieces is to reflect on other painful traumatic experiences. So, each piece I do is the embodiment of a specific memory that may or may not have deviated entirely from the authentic seedling of the experience.
AJC: And are these all grief-related?
McCormack: A lot of them are bad experiences. I’m most inclined to focus on the negative.
AJC: Most of us are.
McCormack: Yeah, exactly, especially I think with, I mean if you’re making skeletons and bones, as much as I think they’re beautiful and intricate and lace-like, they’re still a reflection of pain and suffering. I think a lot of people imbue the pieces with their own meaning. Death is inevitable and everyone can find an experience in their life that relates to a skeleton.
AJC: Is it your intention for these works to be a form of consolation to other people in the way they have been to you?
McCormack: Absolutely, to provide comfort and kind of a sense that you’re not alone, it’s a universal experience in that in looking at this piece your pain is not outlandish or something that you don’t have the right to experience.
And that’s exactly the point, that confronting our fears may be the best way to free ourselves from them.
In a world where everyone is now a photographer, it takes real skill to cut it as a pro. Justin Bettman splits his time between high-end commercial work, that includes ad campaigns and celebrity portraits, and his personal artistic practice.
Justin Bettman: When I started out shooting bands and realized that, if I ever wanted to make a living doing photography, shooting music was not the way to go. And then started doing both commercial and fine artwork and slowly just started developing over time. I think, in life, there’s no way to be completely different from everything else. But the way that you become different or unique is by combining things that haven’t been combined before.
Bettman: So, as human beings it’s impossible to imagine something that doesn’t involve components of something else that already exists, but you know what the color red looks like, and you know what a goat looks like, so you can imagine a red goat. Same thing with photography, you can imagine a certain lighting style, and you can imagine a certain color palette, and you can mix those together in a unique way or perspective.
Bettman’s most recognizable work to date is the ongoing Set in the Street project, which went viral soon after its launch in 2014.
Bettman: I wanted to make a project that virtually anyone could’ve done, so it’s shot outside, there’s no expense for studio space. I shot it with natural light, so I wasn’t renting studio lights. And I wanted to use primarily found furniture, so anyone could’ve found it, hypothetically.
When Bettman is finished with a set, he leaves it in place, inviting passersby to use the space to create their own images, which are then collected on the photo sharing site, Instagram. The concept soon attracted international attention. and has so far created installations in Berlin and Moscow. Perhaps his most impressive commission was his first, from the famously well-patrolled tourist trap, Times Square.
Bettman: I got an email from the head of the Times Square Alliance, and she reached out saying, “Hey, I saw your project Set in the Street, would you like to do one in Times Square?” And I immediately Googled her to try to see if it was someone pranking me, ’cause I’ve done five of them gorilla style, illegally in New York, and I did one in Palm Springs area. And I thought, there’s no way that the first one that I legally get to do with permission is Times Square. But it ended up being real, and it was an awesome experience working with them.
Bettman: That final pitch that I put together was that it would be bringing New York together by having pieces of furniture from all five boroughs, so there’s something from Staten Island, Brooklyn, Queens, Manhattan, and the Bronx. And so bringing everyone together into Times Square—which is a place that a lot of people who live in New York don’t end up visiting, so trying to bring that all together—it was very organized, we had plans of loading in at three in the morning, and it was interesting to see all the drunk people coming home from bars and then finally going into their hotels. And there’s that few moments of silence before people come out the next day for doing more tourist activities, and it was a really fun experience.
AJC: What was it like standing there?
Bettman: The main word I would say is surreal. Less than a year before I had this idea of building these photo scenes on the street, and then to be asked to do it in Times Square, just didn’t seem real to me. And looking up, and all the billboards and lights, and having thousands of people take photos in the set, it was really, really cool experience.
Set in the Street also opened up new doors for Bettman artistically. The Tribeca Film Festival asked him to create a short using his set in Times Square. For Bettman, who typically chooses to work with actors rather than models, it wasn’t a huge stretch.
Bettman: I think a good thing about working with actors is you can give them a certain expression, and, if they’re a good actor, they can hit that, and you don’t have to tell them how to get there. That’s their job.
His job, meantime, has expanded to include taking celebrity portraits of some of Hollywood’s famous faces. He says he gets his best results when he approaches his subjects not as stars.
Bettman: I always like to do research on someone before I photograph them, to have a little bit of talking point and understand a little bit more about who they are, where they’re from, what their interests are. And I think, if you can immediately create a connection early on, that changes everything. Also, a lot of times doing test shots that end up being used is a good example, when people don’t have their guard up, you get a little bit more honest reaction from them. And then sometimes at the end of the shoot, they feel like they’re done, and then you’re like, “one more.” And you quickly get that last final shot that you were trying to get the whole shoot.
Justin Bettman’s ability to access authenticity within artifices is at the core of all of his work. A recent project poses strangers encountered on the side of the street in front of a white background—once again, simulating the studio setting on the cheap.
Bettman: I always see people on the street, and I want them to come back to the studio and photograph them, but it never works out. So, I figured I need to capture them in the moment, and I’ve been working on that. I also have been working on a project where I’ve been building these quintessential New York scenes and photographing them. Before I moved here, I came from California, and I’d watch movies and TV shows. And everyone talked about well, “This is what New York is,” and there were certain things where I moved here where I was like, “That’s not at all the case.” And then other things that I was like, “Yup, some things never change.” And so I’ve been trying to capture those things that have never changed.
Which kind of encapsulates what Justin Bettman is always going for, to capture what is ever-changing, so that it never changes.