“The Running Fence at 33″…an extended family gathers round Christo and Jeanne-Claude… we’re all older but the fence lives on
“The Running Fence at 33,” turned out to be a folksy get-together yesterday afternoon at Bloomfield Park, reuniting what has become a sprawling extended family of friends and well-wishers in the little community that Christo and Jeanne Claude called home for four years while they battled bureaucrats in Sonoma and Marin counties to get their project approved. Nearly 100 people showed up—all a bit older than the last time they met and all eager to reminisce about the billowing white canvas fence that has lived on in their hearts and even in the fickle contemporary art world. German filmmaker Wolfram Hissen who has been here all week shooting a documentary film about the fence had his camera rolling capturing the event.
“It was a project that changed my life,” said Christo, slipping in and out of nostalgic reflections all afternoon while discussing topics that ranged from the project’s vexing bureaucracy, to how many of the original ranches had survived, to his wild hair. Jeanne-Claude, with her own signature orange hair (brighter than it was the last time the couple visited), smiled and agreed, “It was really something, something big.” The couple seemed perfectly content to sign posters and photos, give hugs and look over photo albums, many of them carrying captions that had been made on now-archaic typewriters. The unspoken truth— like the yellowing pages of those very collectible Christo running fence art books, we’re aging…farmers are starting to pass and many of their dairy and cattle ranches have been split up too. For that reason, no one seemed to mind that their every move was being documented by Hissen and will likely become footage in his documentary film “The Running Fence, 33 Years Later” that will launch in conjunction with the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s exhibition about the fence in Washington D.C. on April 2, 2010.
“The Running Fence” is the biggest work of art that has ever graced the Bay Area—the 24 mile-long 18 foot high steel pole and canvas fence ran from Dillon Beach to Cotati, and was visible from Highway 101. Done as part of America’s 1976 Bicentennial Celebration, it seems fitting it was conceived of by a Bulgarian-born conceptual artist who had relocated to Paris and then New York. The project was in place for just two weeks in 1976 but it was four years in the making, transected 59 local ranches and it took a virtual army of volunteers to build, some of whom came from as far as New York to help out. Many of the locals who agreed to let Christo run his project through their property have passed on, but their children were there to let Christo and Jean-Claude know how the project touched them. Indeed, over the years, the fence has come to define the small community of farmers who joined with Christo and Jeanne-Claude to fight for art’s right to exist for its own sake.
Rosy Ielmorini, now 75, remembers the day she met Christo. “He drove in one day with Jeanne-Claude, just inside our driveway, and you know how you do when you see a strange face in your yard, you just watch for a little while, so I did that. Well, he started talking with my husband and I don’t know how it happened but pretty soon he was just around here a lot. We had dairy you know, ranching and that life, and here was this artist, and my, did he talk. I didn’t understand all this art stuff at first but I kept soaking it up and I got totally involved. When it was going up, I was beside myself.” Jeanne-Claude holds Rosy very dear–“I saw her on the bridge in Paris, at the pink Surrounded Islands, the Umbrellas”—that means so much to us.”
One of the afternoon’s more touching moments came when Susan Nowacki and her sister, Amy Sabourin, daughters of Jean Mickelsen presented Jeanne-Claude with a story their mother had written about the fence. The fence went through the Mickeslen dairy farm out on Pepper Road. (The ranch has since been sold to the Camozzi family.) Jean Mickelson passed away in 2004 but she dictated the story to her caregiver after having a stroke and it was that copy, replete with typos, that was presented to Jeanne-Claude. Mickelson is legendary in fence lore because it was she who made the oft-quoted apple pie statement—“When there was a lot of hullabaloo in the community about should this fence be allowed or not, mom and dad were very supportive of it,” said Susan Nowacki. “Mom went before the Board of Supervisors and a lot of people who were saying that a temporary fence isn’t an artwork because it won’t last. Mom said ‘Well, when I make a really good apple pie, it doesn’t last but people really like it and I think it’s an artwork. The Board of Supervisors heard that and passed it and that’s how mom became famous.”
Amy Sabourin, Nowacki’s sister, was a student at Petaluma High School at the time (class of 1974)and she recalls her parents hosting Christo and Jean-Claude in their living room for various fence-related meetings. By the time the project was completed she was in college and saw it while visiting home. “I thought it was very neat. I will never forget the way it extended into the ocean.” The Bloomfield gathering was “a little awkward” for Sabourin because she was there representing her mother who had passed and the finality of her loss really hit home. The pieces of the fence their family kept were pretty dirty by the time fence came down but cherished. Her mother made tablecloths out of one section and raffled them off amongst her card-playing friends. Sobourin used her piece as Christmas tree skirt.
Shirley Handy was living in Petaluma at the time and learned of the project through the unemployment office.
“It was a real job and we worked hard. Our shift started at 3 a.m. They had to make sure it wasn’t too hot out. They provided everything—food, drinks, potties.” Handy says that, at first, she approached it as a job but once she learned that a man had come from New York just to work on the project, her attitude changed. “As the project materialized, I began to see it as art and that was very nice.” The most memorable aspect of the project was “going up the poles and actually putting the fence up. You had to have a harness and to know what you were doing. It was something you never thought you’d do at age 19. .. OR.. when they told us, that we were taking the fence down into the water; that was something that had been kept hush-hush. That was well, very exciting.” Handy said that she deeply touched when Jeanne-Claude gave her a big kiss and asked how she’d been.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum purchased the full archives of the Running Fence project from Christo in 2008, about 350 individual items, including 46 hand-drawn preparatory sketches and collages by Christo, as well as the full environmental impact report which is significant because this is the first environmental impact statement ever done for a work of art. This material was put together by Christo in 1977 as a running fence documentary exhibition that traveled around Europe and the US. The Smithsonian will exhibit this material as well the 1978 Albert and David Maysles film “Running Fence” and Wolfram Hissan’s new film. The show is called “Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the ‘Running Fence, Sonoma and Marin Counties, California, 1972-76,’ A Documentation Exhibition” and it opens April 2, 2010, in Washington and will travel nationally.
George Gurney, deputy chief curator at the Smithsonian, in charge of the exhibition, was directing traffic and I spoke to him amidst cars moving in and out of the field adjacent to Bloomfield Park. Gurney has made a few trips to Northern, CA. but he didn’t actually see the fence but he says he understands why Christo chose this spot. “It’s the topography, such a contrast between the coast and the hills and clumps of trees. The fence took advantage of the very sculptural nature of the land—kind of surfacing and hiding in that land. I think the landscape was very deterministic….This project really put him on the map. He really had to overcome a lot to get it done and you don’t forget that. It was also a taste of the future in terms of what he could expect.” Gurney would not discuss how much the Smithsonian paid for the archives but said that it was understood that the Smithsonian would keep the material together and exhibit it nationally.
The Bloomfield event was not without its own homegrown artworks. After the project was dismantled, the local ranchers were given all the materials that ran through their property—in some cases that meant several huge 68 foot wide nylon canvas panels and lots of piping. Mary Ann Bruhn, daughter of Lester Bruhn, who played a tremendous role in initially persuading local farmers to support the project, helped organize the gathering and was very happy about the turnout. “This was so important to our family,” said Bruhn. She brought a tablecloth and a blazer that her mother, Amelia, had sewn from a small portion of just one their running fence panels. Other farmers told of using the piping for fencing projects and the canvas for windbreaks and tarping. Bruhn is now a hairdresser in Petaluma and said she never cut Christo’s hair but often thought about it.
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