Art In Focus: “Impatient Optimist” by Janet Echelman

Posted on March 01, 2015, 3:38 pm
3 mins


Ancient craft principles and cutting edge technologies meet in Janet Echelman’s internationally renowned aerial sculptures, composed of ultra-lightweight yet durable fibers woven into expansive nets that stretch hundreds of feet in the open air. The organic forms are resplendently lit, becoming a breathing entity of light. On February 10, “Impatient Optimist” at The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation became the latest addition to Echelman’s impressive oeuvre, a global network of aerial sculptures that stretch from Singapore to Amsterdam. What may not be immediately apparent to the observer is that this sculpture also subtly references the international reach of the foundation itself and—for that matter—the roundness of our shared earth

"Impatient Optimist" by Janet Echelman illuminated at night. Image courtesy of the artist.

“Impatient Optimist” by Janet Echelman illuminated at night. Image courtesy of the artist.

“Impatient Optimist” floats suspended between the twin buildings on the foundation’s Seattle campus on Fifth Ave. Its colorful, billowing form resembles an abyssal creature, or perhaps something from outer space. In fact, it is positioned between us and the place of its conceptual origin: the Seattle sky. “Impatient Optimist” was generated from a radial graph of the different colors of the Seattle sky photographed by the artist over the course of a single day.

At night, “Impatient Optimist” slowly shifts from vibrant pinks to soft blues to bright oranges in an elaborate lighting sequence that mirrors in real time the colors of the sunrise at the foundation’s regional offices in India, Africa, China, the U.K. and Washington D.C. One is seeing a glimpse of dawn beyond the horizon. “Impatient Optimist” captures the spirit and mission of the Gates Foundation through its layered references and its visual accessibility to the public through its monumental size and position near the Seattle Center.

For Echelman, collaboration is key to produce such highly technical and aesthetically striking works like “Impatient Optimist.” She works with a team of aeronautical and mechanical engineers, architects, lighting designers and fabricators, in addition to using local materials and methods, such as traditional net tying techniques of local fishermen. The nets for this sculpture were produced in Everson, WA. (To learn more about Echelman’s process and story check out her TED Talk.) As a result, the sculptures are imbued with a civic and local character that connects them to their environment.

“Impatient Optimist” is at once local and global, light and resilient, artistic and scientific. In place of divisions and oppositions, “Impatient Optimist,” like the Gates Foundation, builds bridges seeking to connect and collaborate. The permanent installation is an impressive and wonderful addition to the city landscape, reflecting the roots of the Gates Foundation here in Seattle. Drawn from the very identity of the foundation itself, “Impatient Optimist” embodies its namesake, looking skyward, across the world, to envision the dawn even in darkness and strive for a better tomorrow.


David Strand is a writer and aspiring curator based in Seattle.