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REVISITING CHRISTO'S MAGICAL FENCE

"It has a quality of love and tenderness that is reserved for things that do not last."

-- The artist Jeanne-Claude

"This is a helluva of a way to run a fence."

-- A crew member that first morning

In 1974, a Bulgarian-born artist named Christo and his French wife and partner, Jeanne-Claude, began knocking on the doors of ranchers in the rolling hills between Cotati and the Pacific Ocean.

We want to build a fence, Christo explained.

One rancher replied, well, we appreciate the offer, but we build our own fences.

It turned out that Christo and Jeanne Claude had something more ambitious in mind.

You know, a fence. Eighteen-feet high. Stretching for 24 miles. Fabricated from 240,000 square yards of white nylon, 90 miles of steel cable, 2,050 steel poles and 13,000 earth anchors. Requiring permission from 59 separate land owners. And taken down after two weeks.

Unless you were here, it's difficult to explain how it happened, or why it happened, or what it meant to the people who experienced it. As the engineer Jim Fuller would later say, "There's no book to tell you how to build a 24-mile-long nylon fence." Or how to explain it, he might have added.

As a reporter, I was a skeptic. Can these people be serious?

But when I saw it, when I stood on the ground next to it, I thought the "Running Fence" was amazing and beautiful.

Now, a new museum show allows some of us to re-live the memories of that once-in-a-lifetime experience -- and others to imagine what it must have been like.

"Christo and Jeanne-Claude: Remembering the 'Running Fence' " opened in April at the Smithsonian American Art Museum in downtown Washington. The exhibit features original drawings, maps, photographs, letters, official resolutions, contracts for easements, engineering drawings, permit applications, even a touchscreen presentation of what is described as the first environmental impact report written for an art project.

The exhibit also features a new film by Wolfram Hissan -- which will be shown next month in Sonoma County -- and a new book. The book is dedicated to Jeanne-Claude, who died in November.

As someone who wrote about the controversy and watched the fence being constructed, the exhibit brought back all sorts of memories -- of familiar faces, names, places, even meeting rooms (venues where politicians usually weighed less sublime topics). Standing in a museum in Washington, a visitor from the North Bay is reminded, too, that he lives in a place of unique beauty.

Back in 1974, it seemed improbable that a long-haired, Bulgarian-born artist from New York could use his limited English to persuade no-nonsense dairy and livestock farmers that they should allow him to build a 24-mile fence across their land.

But the ranchers became Christo and Jeanne-Claude's best friends. It was the farmers' testimony that persuaded hometown politicians to approve the project.

As it navigated the regulatory landscape in Sonoma and Marin counties, the "Running Fence" became a precursor of other celebrated land use controversies -- with the usual delegations of engineers, lawyers and passionate supporters/critics. Environmentalists warned that the fence would block migration trails for wildlife. Others simply thought the whole thing was crazy.

Jeanne-Claude would tell them: "Whether you like it or not, you're all part of the work of art."

Christo would win approval of key agencies in both Sonoma and Marin counties. The Sonoma County Board of Supervisors certified the EIR and approved the use permit on a 3-1 vote on Dec. 16, 1975.

But the California Coastal Commission -- the vote was 3-9 -- rejected the application to start the fence in the ocean.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude installed the ocean section anyway, setting in motion a short-lived legal fight in which a judge decided to take up the state's complaint when it didn't matter -- after the fence was dismantled.

"Well, it was not fully illegal," Christo would say in his defense.

On Sept. 10, 1976, the "Running Fence" was completed -- stretching from Meacham Hill, south of Cotati, through Valley Ford to the ocean.

For a project that remained in place for only two weeks, it combines so many elements -- the artists' imagination and courage, drawings and sketches, legal agreements, the politics, reams of government reports, the engineering, the logistics, small armies of engineers and workers, photographs and films, friendships, memories, even museum exhibits.

What I remember is the interplay of light and patterns and sound, as the white translucent panels flapped in the wind and metal fittings clanged against the poles.

I remember how the curtain, seen from a distance, serpentined over the rolling landscape, disappearing and then reappearing again beyond the next ridge.

Meandering across the golden hillsides of September, it was beautiful.

"Like a white dress on a tan blonde," Christo would later say.

"You could talk or dream that it was going on forever," Jeanne-Claude says in the new film. And so it has.

Pete Golis is a columnist for The Press Democrat. E-mail him at petegolis@pressdemo.com.

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