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‘I couldn’t be more delighted’: Janet Echelman looks back on a year at the Pier

Bill DeYoung

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"The sculpture felt like a holding place, a vessel, for people to gather," says artist Janet Echelman. Photo by Amy Martz; courtesy Majeed Foundation.

One year ago this coming Tuesday, the St. Pete Pier opened to the public. The anniversary is being celebrated with a weekend full of events on and around the $93 million structure, culminating in a 5 p.m. party that’ll wrap with a new twist on the fireworks finale: 300 drones equipped with LED lights, will create flying formations across 500 feet of Tampa Bay sky. Details are here.

Tuesday will also commemorate the debut of “Bending Arc,” the elevated net sculpture created by internationally-renowned artist Janet Echelman.

Janet Echelman

The Tampa-born, Massachusetts-based artist, in the run-up to the sculpture’s installation, explained that the series of knots and cords was designed to underscore the connected-ness of all people. The title “Bending Arc,” she said, came from a quote of Dr. Martin Luther King’s: “The arc of the moral universe is long but it bends towards justice.”

We spoke with Echelman about the sculpture, and its location near the site of the original Spa Beach (a St. Petersburg hotspot in the 1960s battle for civil rights), and the auspicious anniversary:

Looking back on one year, what are you feeling about Bending Arc and its place in St. Petersburg? Do you feel the public has embraced your work as you hoped they would?

I do – in fact it has exceeded my hopes and expectations, the way that people have been sharing with me how the sculpture has become part of life. And that is very meaningful for me. I recently got an email from a couple who decided to hold their wedding underneath it, and sent me photos in their wedding dress and fancy duds … on bicycles! And I’ve been getting photos of a self-organized drum circle that meets underneath the sculpture every week. And yoga and other kinds of fitness.

Oliver McCan and Janet Adams married beneath “Bending Arc” Dec. 21. Said the groom: “Woke up one morning with a dream I got married under the opening of the Bending Arc, on the Winter Solstice, on the day the planets converged, riding our bicycles. Two weeks later, we made it happen.” Photo provided by Studio Echelman.

I’ve received photos from marches about racial justice – how the sculpture became a destination, and people would gather around the sand pit in the center and tell stories. And that the sculpture felt like a holding place, a vessel, for people to gather. And just a place for pure joy! To look up and see the sky and the sculpture, and the patterns of the wind, with beautiful waterfront all around you. I couldn’t be more delighted.

 

You talked about civil rights in the city’s history, and how the knots in this piece depict our connected-ness as human beings. I’m sure a lot of people don’t think more than ‘Hey, that’s pretty!’ Have you had any correspondence or otherwise that would indicate folks “get it”?

People are drawn in by the connection of the sculpture and nature. And then they find their way to the written marker that tells the information about the sculpture, and introduces them to the fact that this was an important civil rights historical site for our country – that this is where “swim-ins” were held, leading directly to a U.S. Supreme Court ruling that integrated all municipal beaches and pools around the entire country. I think it’s a moment to be proud of St. Pete.

An artwork is not a history museum, or a textbook. It is part of life, and it’s a way to spark curiosity, to know and learn more. Its title, ‘Bending Arc,’ is an invitation to ask ‘Why?’ ‘What is the meaning of this title?’ As an artist, I’m posing questions, not answering questions – I am more sparking curiosity for people to go in search of their own answers.

 

Have there been any maintenance issues?

There’s not been any maintenance that I’m aware of. I’ve not received any phone calls from the City of St. Pete. I did hear that one lovely mallard duck seemed to have gotten separated from his flock, and was assisted back out into nature, completely unharmed. I don’t know that it counts as maintenance! And I should note that there have been zero injuries to birds documented in the more than a year since the sculpture was installed.

 

Anything you’d change, armed with “what you know now”?

Nothing comes to mind. But as an artist, that isn’t the way I think anyway. I learn so much from each project and take those lessons to my next challenge, but nothing I’d do differently seeing it all in hindsight – I’m happy with what we’ve accomplished.

Drum circle. Photo by Amy Martz; courtesy Majeed Foundation.

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