06/21/2013 11:07 am ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

Prisms of Possibility

Janet Echelman's sculpture in Amsterdam in 201. Photo: B. Visbeek

"Yet the absence of the imagination had / Itself to be imagined"

So declares Wallace Stevens in his poem "The Plain Sense of Things." What I take from these words is that whether or not we acknowledge the interpenetration of the actual and the perceived, the world is indeed what we make of it. The words remind us that we actively participate in defining reality even when -- and perhaps especially when -- we place limits upon what is possible.

The very essence of Stevens' beguiling poetry is its refusal to be tethered. The verse is challenging to those who seek defined meaning and rules of interpretation. The poems seem to float above the laws of gravity. His verses are nothing if not a chorus of clouds refusing to lie still on solid ground. Yet, herein lie their mysterious magnificence.

If the reader suspends the need to tie down a poem's ethereal grandeur by "understanding" it, the rewards can be sublime. Stevens' gift is a restoration of a primal human awareness, achieved by invoking landscapes of the mind large enough to contain what we know, what we wonder and what we never dreamed we could perceive.

One of his best poems, inspired by Picasso's portrait of a blind musician with inner vision, is "Man with a Blue Guitar." In its music-like variations, the lines paint the paradox of our common longing:

The man replied, "Things as they are / Are changed upon the blue guitar."

And they said then, "But play you must, / A tune beyond us, yet ourselves,

A tune upon the blue guitar / Of things exactly as they are."

We humans are a tangled mesh of want and worry. What is real? What is possible? Do we dare imagine more? What changes if we do?

Yet, maybe the truth about the tension between reality and imagination is less their opposition, and more their contrapuntal nature. When played in unison "note against note," they stretch boundaries and weave transformative textures to create a harmonious whole of startling magnitude. Be not afraid.

One can look at the dance between hard facts and daring fancies as the locomotive of great art -- and of great science. Knit together, the common and the impossible make a web of sense, which creates a fresh universe by adding us to it. When this happens in a poem, I know it in my nerve endings. The layer between it and me dissolves.

When public art achieves this melding of self and other, it does so on a collective human scale. The boundary between real and unreal, I and it, me and them becomes permeable. We begin in that suspended experience, to breathe as one.

So, inhale and behold the synchronicitous sculpture of Janet Echelman. Castles in the sky, indeed they are.


Echelman's permanent sculpture for downtown Phoenix, AZ. Photo: Greater Phoenix CVB

How can their magic appear so natural? It's as though this creator has mined the secret sea-depths to show us how beauty looks though the eyes of underwater creatures. Or perhaps she is giving the gift of flight to fluttering apparitions born of wild nights raging on the moonscape of a lost world. Or perhaps this is what a single breath or thought would see if looking in the mirror. Whatever their true origins, Echelman's sculptures have the mannerisms of nature but the form of pure spirit. She does for air what Laird Hamilton does to a giant wave -- they both use their artistry to take a bow of great respect for the power and scale of the possible.

Echelman's story of how she discovered herself as an artist and how she and her team conjure these visions is remarkable. It's an unfolding tale, which inspires us to recognize that life is both a reflection of reality and a bold creative alternative. Her art does this on a grand scale. Her lyrical forms are like ghost souls charming us to let them back inside. Invite them. Invite them.