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Chris Smith: Christo surely would find art even in all that’s happening now

Headlines about Christo's death Sunday ran smaller than one might expect because all the big ones were taken by the pandemic and fallout from the killing of George Floyd.

But the crazy-haired, wild-brained, Bulgaria-born Christo was a big, big deal across the planet and certainly in the North Bay, which he made famous en route to astonishing humans worldwide and jolting their notion of what is art.

Who knows how many people around the globe first read or heard the words "Sonoma" and "Marin" from accounts of Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude's audacious, roundly contested 1976 project to string a meandering curtain 24.5 miles from Cotati to the coast.

"Running Fence" began as an utter head scratcher of a notion to invest massive effort and bushels of dollars to hang from cables and posts 2,050 panels of white nylon fabric — and just 14 days later take it all down.

THE FOUR YEARS it took Christo and Jeanne-Claude to clear the bureaucratic hurdles and to win over critics were fundamental to the creative process. There was great theater and purpose to the arguments over west county pickle barrels and the legal and environmental and regulatory debates and all the human discourse that preceded the anchoring of the first 18-foot steel pole.

Christo did not propose art installations projects that would cause the typical person to nod and say, "Oh, how nice that would be."

Jaws dropped when Jeanne-Claude, who died in 2009, and Christo described their yearning to run a billowy fence across miles of Sonoma-Marin ranchland, and to temporarily collar small islands in Florida's Biscayne Bay with floating pink fabric, and to erect saffron gateways along 23 miles of walkways in New York City's Central Park, and to wrap Berlin's domed Reichstag building, and to allow people to walk on Italy's Lake Iseo with the fleeting creation of bright yellow floating piers, and on and on.

CHRISTO SAVORED the process of trying to work through conflict and come to resolution, then crown that achievement with the construction of a grand-scale art installation that for just a short while might delight and bring people together.

Christo regarded art as a force for liberation in a world scourged by injustice and strife. As a young man he found refuge in creative endeavor after seeing Bulgaria overrun by Nazi Germany, then by Russia.

"The work of art," he would say, "is a scream of freedom."

ALL THROUGH SONOMA and Marin are people who remember Christo and Jeanne-Claude and replay memories of the serpentine fence they built and the robust community debate that was its first phase.

Amy Sabourin, Susan Nowacki and Max Mickelson recall what it was their mother, late west county rancher Jean Mickelson, said to help nudge leery Sonoma County supervisors to approve the installation.

Certain speakers at a hearing before the board declared that the proposed fence was not art because it would exist for such a short time.

The modest and matronly Jean Mickelson stood to tell supervisors she'll often bake an apple pie. She said she puts a lot of work and love into a pie she thinks of as a work of art.

And once she sets it on the table, it doesn't last long at all.

You can contact Chris Smith at 707 521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.

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