Magazine article Insight on the News

Good Fences Make Friends

Magazine article Insight on the News

Good Fences Make Friends

Article excerpt

In 1972, a brash young artist named Christo and his wife and colleague, Jeanne-Claude, came to the local governing bodies of Marin and Sonoma counties in California with a proposal. They wanted to stretch an 18-foot-high fence made from 264,000 yards of billowing white nylon panels across 26 miles of privately owned farm land and hillside down to the Pacific Ocean. Most people thought they were, wen, nuts.

"I've been hanging laundry for 60 years and nobody's ever called me an artist," remarked 80-year-old Dede Kroger, echoing the prevailing attitude among the regions residents at the time.

Despite initial skepticism, the artists, along with their team of lawyers, battled city hall, cajoled local landowners and addressed the myriad concerns of a bemused and bewildered public for four years - all the while exerting that the very process of winning approval for the fence was as much a part of the artwork as the fence itself. After all, Running Fence, as the project came to be known, was to remain in place only 14 days.

"We didn't want the fence," recalls Kay Webster, a longtime resident of Valley Ford, a tiny hamlet bisected by the fence. "Of course, when it finally went up it was beautiful." Webster was one of the protestors who tried to block the project. "It wasn't that I didn't respect him as an artist," she says. "But I sided with the majority of people who felt that if the fence did go up, it would bring so many people into the community that it would change us. Well, it did change us. It ended up bringing people together. For the first time the local farmers and ranchers and hippies were getting together and talking about things, and often we were on the same side."

Christo and company went on to great fame, "wrapping" structures such as the Reichstag in Germany, the Pont Neuf in Paris and several islands off the coast of Florida in miles of special fabric. They have flung curtains across canyons and unfurled thousands of umbrellas on two different continents. Currently they are contemplating a fabric canopy which would stretch over a yet unchosen river in the western United States.

But in Valley Ford, precious little has changed. Ranching remains the principle occupation. And the population still hovers around 140. One thing that has changed, however, is the Valley Ford Post Office, a tidy little 20-by-40 foot building. These days it is doing double duty as a kind of informal Christo museum. A section of the fence is on permanent display, with photographs, newspaper articles and the original map tracing the course of the fence over the hillsides.

"We get people in here all the time who come because they've heard of the fence," remarks Postmistress Roz Simmons, with a vivacious grin. "A lot of Europeans will come in, look around and say, `Ahhh, Christo.'"

At a recent fete commemorating the 20th anniversary of Running Fence, a dozen or so people managed to fit inside the small lobby and took turns paging through the Running Fence book, a 13-pound tome published by Abrams that contains every item of correspondence related to the ephemeral artifact.

"Christo gave away more than 800 copies of the book," says Jim Kidder, one of the hundreds of individuals who volunteered to work on the project in 1976. "I saw a copy in New York recently and they were asking $1,000 for it."

In Valley Ford, the book is both a reflection of the project as well as a touchstone for the community's past. …

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