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A Highway Runs Through It

By Gretchen Giles

Created by the artist Christo and his collaborator wife, Jeanne-Claude, Running Fence snaked not 24 or 25 but exactly 24.5 miles from Cotati to the Pacific Ocean.

All because of Highway 101?

"We wanted to do a project in California related to the land and the ocean. Highway 101 was 24.5 miles from the ocean," Christo says by phone from his and Jeanne-Claude's New York home-studio.

"If Highway 101 were three miles from the ocean, then the Running Fence would only have been three miles long," Jeanne-Claude affirms on the other line.

As if mention of a hotly contested local throughway weren't enough, Christo and Jeanne-Claude found themselves broaching other disagreeable topics some 28 years ago--such as land rights and government building permits.

Running Fence was the first artwork ever to require an environmental impact report, and the document was a doozy, totaling 450 pages. Public hearings dragged on while ranchers and neighbors fought to find consensus. The Coastal Commission initially denied access to end Running Fence at the ocean, but conceded after the artists did it anyway, cheered on by the ebullient support of then Marin County Supervisor Gary Giacomini.

But securing permits and raising public hackles is not foreign to this team. "The way that we approach the sites [that we work on]--we must get permission from many different people," explains Jeanne-Claude. "All of that becomes part of the art experience."

"People's interpretation becomes part of the art," says Christo. "Whether they are for or against, they are all a part of the work."

Sebastopol Center for the Arts staffer Satri Penacek was the slide librarian for Sonoma State University when Running Fence was being erected. "I photographed it a lot," she remembers. "One of the things that's stayed with me is the way that it redefined the landscape that I already knew.

"When the fence was there, I noticed hills and trees that I hadn't noticed before. The hills rolled in a new way; it just added a whole surreal element to the landscape. Oh, and seeing it at night, shimmering under the moon . . ."

Part-time Marin resident Jok Church--creator of the "Beakman's World" television series and the "Beakman and Jax" comic strip--recalls that the fence's fabric acted like a "wick for the moonlight; this band of light would move through the hills."

Then the news director at the fabled KTIM-FM radio station in Marin, as well as at KZAP-FM in Sacramento, Church heard about the fence and convinced his longtime partner, Adam Ciesielski, to accompany him to the project.

"The fence did this wonderful thing as the wind blew across it," Church recalls. "There were waves that were very much like a mantra. You could walk for miles--time and space were completely warped. Christo and Jeanne-Claude alter reality in a way that I find enormously attractive. Anyone who has been to Running Fence has been changed. The change is not in the environment--the change is in you."

From the August 23-29, 2001 issue of the Northern California Bohemian.

© Metro Publishing Inc.

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