Bill Lynch: When Christo came to Sonoma

The artist known as Christo died recently at his home in New York City, he was 84.

Longtime Sonomans may remember him as a bright-eyed, wild-haired young man who rolled into town in April of 1975 to make a presentation at a luncheon sponsored by the Redwood Empire chapter of the American Institute of Architects. There, he announced his plans to build a “Running Fence” from Highway 101 to Bodega Bay. He said that the fence would be hung on steel cable strung from 2,270 steel poles.

Many locals rolled their eyes and dismissed the idea with a “Yeah, right.”

Even though Christo and his wife, Jean-Claude, had already established a worldwide reputation for their huge outdoor modern art projects, including the “Hanging Curtain,” a 1,250-feet long, 180-feet high draping of orange fabric across the Grand Canyon, many here in town thought they’d never get the permission needed to cross so many miles of private property in Sonoma County.

These were also the early days of Environmental Impact Reports, a challenge for most building projects. Christo’s would require an EIR and was beyond anything the politicians who drafted the law could have ever imagined.

Yet of all the things I remember about Christo, it was his irrepressible positive energy and unflinching belief that he could complete the work of art as he and Jean-Claude described it.

By sheer will and personal charm, he convinced many Sonoma County residents, including some from Sonoma Valley, to become volunteer workers on the project.

He also completed a 450-page EIR, and got it approved.

Then, he made believers of us all on Sept. 10, 1976, when his Running Fence was completed. It was 18 feet high and 24.5 miles long, consisting of 2,050 panels of white nylon fabric suspended on steel cables from 350,000 hooks. The route began near Highway 101 and crossed 14 roads and 59 private farms to reach the Pacific Ocean near Bodega Bay.

It was an awesome sight, and many Sonomans took the time to drive along the route and take it in from various angles.

After 14 days, Christo’s entire work of art was removed, without a trace.

There are some commemorative markers in Bodega, and on Highway 1 near Valley Ford. For awhile a piece of the fabric hung from the Rio Theatre in Monte Rio.

I don’t think most of us truly appreciated Christo until his project became real and then was gone within two weeks.

I doubt we will ever see his like pass our way again.

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