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‘A new way of creating art’

Airspace sculptor Janet Echelman draws inspiration from French artist Henri Matisse, who, she said, was in his 80s when he “invented a new way of creating art” by designing cut paper collages.

“This is an idea of the kind of life I wanted,” Echelman explained. “I wanted to be challenged at every point and have no one to blame but myself if I wasn’t challenged.”

She spoke to more than 200 students, faculty and staff who filled the Raytheon Amphitheater on Thursday for this second event in Northeastern University’s Presidential Speaker Series entitled Profiles in Innovation. iRobot cofounder and CEO Colin Angle was the inaugural speaker on Nov. 3.

President Joseph E. Aoun hosted the program, which is designed to bring the world’s most creative minds to campus for conversations on innovation and entrepreneurship. More than 100 people watched the hour-long event live on Facebook or on a screen in a separate room accommodating the overflow audience.

Echelman’s work dovetails with Northeastern’s focus, Aoun said. “Janet’s work is interdisciplinary by nature,” he explained. “It fits very well with what we are doing at Northeastern.”

Echelman transforms urban space by creating building-scale sculptures that fuse with the forces of nature, including wind, water and light. Combining traditional craft with cutting-edge technology, the innovative artist taps the potential of unlikely materials — from fishing nets to atomized water particles — to create dynamic, accessible experiences in cities worldwide.

Some of her most prominent installations include “Her Secret is Patience,” which spans two city blocks in downtown Phoenix; “Water Sky Garden,” which premiered for the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics; and “She Changes,” which anchors a waterfront plaza in Porto, Portugal.

Echelman summed up the essence of her art by telling a story about a homeless man who asked the artist to explain the meaning behind one of her sculptures.

“Everyone gets to make his own meaning out of my work,” she told the man. He walked away and then turned back. “It’s a bird!” he exclaimed.

After the lecture, Echelman fielded questions from members of the audience and Facebook and Twitter users.

Echelman, who was rejected by all seven art schools to which she applied, responded to one Twitter user who questioned how an aspiring artist could follow his or her passion when professional wisdom suggested he or she won’t succeed.

“It’s about continuing to work and being open to change and not giving up,” she said. “Be open to letting your dream adapt and unfold. It takes a long time to find your voice.”

She encouraged budding artists to explore as many educational fields as possible. “Study…linguistics, history, materials science and engineering,” she said. “Study anything (you) can to develop your voice.”

Prior to Echelman’s address, Aoun played a fun video about a series of net abductions on Northeastern’s campus. In the video, a newscaster reports that a copycat sculptor has pilfered hairnets, fishing nets and basketball nets in an effort to imitate Echelman’s work in honor of her appearance at the university.

At the end of the video, Aoun is revealed to be the perpetrator. Echelman got a kick out of the video. “That was the most original and humorous introduction I have ever received,” she told Aoun and then quipped, “I knew you were a man of many talents.”