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Christo's Umbrellas still fresh in memory, 20 years later

Twenty years ago this month, the hills of Kern County became the focus of the international art community, with the temporary installation of over a thousand giant yellow umbrellas along The Grapevine. Now, two decades later, while the umbrellas are long gone, the event remains fresh in the minds of many. FM89’s Joe Moore has this report. 

In October 1991, Vikki Cruz was just 11 years old, but the current curator of the Bakersfield Museum of Art remembers one trip up Interstate 5 that year very well.

“I remember driving up to the pass, and all of a sudden, the hillsides were just scattered with these giant pops of yellow, and it was really quiet beautiful. Then I remember walking along with my family and taking photographs underneath this giant shade and walking around and just seeing the thousands and thousands of yellow umbrellas.”

Those umbrellas were part of an international art project by the husband and wife team of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, spanning two continents, eight years of planning, and costing $26 million. On both Kern County’s Tejon Ranch, and the rice paddies of Ibaraki, Japan, the team installed a total of over 3000 umbrellas, blue ones in Japan, and yellow ones in California, each standing nearly 20 feet tall.

Christo, who is currently working on a new project to cover known as “Over the River,” which will cover Colorado’s Arkansas River with five miles of fabric, remembers The Umbrellas well. He spoke with us from his studio in New York earlier this week.

“The umbrellas is a project in two parts, like a traditional painting where two canvases make one work of art. It’s a project to highlight the similarities and difference of the two riches countries in the world, a lot of similarities and a lot of differences. Between the very sunny, dry landscape in Southern California, and the very wet landscape, full of water in Japan.”

He says the site along Interstate 5 was critical to the success of the project.

“It’s very important to have a very living landscape, living meaning that there are villages, and towns, and highways and bridges, all kinds of man-made structures to have a relation to the scale of the umbrellas. In the wilderness we never know how tall is the umbrella, how wide is it.

You know there was the principal highway 5 in California, but there was an additional small county road where we can see the work of art from different perspectives, different height. In the same way we have the Gorman, the Tejon Ranch, we have the Lebec, all these small towns. Literally the umbrella was very close to the road, in California there were sitting under the umbrellas having picnics, the post office, near the church. The same thing in Japan, near the temple, near the post office, near the school."

Allene Zanger, who at the time was a senior executive with Tejon Ranch, worked closely with Christo and Jeanne-Claude on the project beginning in 1987.

“[It was] one of the most joyous periods of my life. Because it brought together people from such diverse areas and they were brought together in such a happy moment. We watched the umbrellas being opened with the morning sun shining on this incredible yellow fabric, and it was extremely exciting. It was really one of the more exciting moments of my life, and I think everyone who was there felt the same way,” said Zanger. The project was not without its challenges.

“There were a number of issues, how do you get the umbrellas on the top of the hills, areas where there are no roads? So they actually had to helicopter the umbrella parts up to the top of the hills,” said Zanger. The fact that this all took place on a working cattle ranch added to the complexity.

“I do remember an emergency meeting that was held with Tejon Ranch, because the crew for Christo and Jeanne-Claude, left a gate open between a herd of cows and a herd of bulls, and they weren’t supposed to mix that time of the year, his staff needed to be fully trained when you go through a gate you close it, and for someone in the ranching business, that was a big deal.”

Another problem involved winning over those skeptical of the project. Here’s former Kern County Supervisor Mary K Shell.

“A lot of people weren’t familiar with Christo’s wonderful projects and they said ‘WHAT?’ And they were also fearful that it was going to cost Kern County money, which it didn’t. Christo took care of all of the costs of the project, and of course it brought a lot of people into the county to look at the umbrellas. So it all ended up a very positive event.”

Christo and Jeanne-Claude financed the project on their own, through the sale of their artworks, but still needed the approval of the landowners, Kern County and dozens of other agencies.

“The permitting process really developed the identity of the project. We are probably the only artists in the world where our art is discussed before it physically exists,” said Christo.

Whether it was wrapping Germany’s Reichstag in fabric, or encircling entire islands in Miami’s Biscayne Bay, Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s larger than life works of art were matched by their personalities. “They were dynamic, they were exciting, they were very deliberative, very tenacious and they had a joy of life that was contagious,” said Zanger.

Jeanne-Claude died in 2009, but Christo has continued their work. The two began planning their Colorado project in 1991, after the completion of The Umbrellas. Their bond and artistic vision was especially strong.

“Myself and Jeanne-Claude, we were born the same day, the same year in 1935, June the 30th. And Jeanne-Claude would always love to say we are Gemimi, we are four people.”

Zanger says sometimes Jeanne-Claude doesn’t get the credit she deserves. “People often talk about Christo, but they were a partnership. It was Christo and Jeanne-Claude. They were the artists they were the project managers.”

“Jeanne-Claude, with her bright red hair was a dynamo, and she was one of the sharpest and shrewdest businesspeople I’ve ever come across and I’ve come across many in my life, but she did it with class. She negotiated with class and with a real fervor, and for that you had to admire her,” said Zanger.

Zanger continued, “Christo was a little quieter and reserved, but there was a calmness about him and you trusted in him, they were real and genuine people and they could relate to people from all walks of life, whether they were people who were janitors or high level governmental officials or wealthy businessmen and everybody felt comfortable with them.”

While the project was a joyous occasion for many, it was not without tragedy. On October 26th, 1991, a 33 year old Camarillo resident, Lori Keevil-Matthews, was killed when one of the umbrellas in California fell in a windstorm, trapping her against a boulder. Later, when the project was being dismantled, a worker in Japan was electrocuted when his crane touched a high voltage power line.

“I remember the moment when we received the news as if it was yesterday. I was in Japan at the time with Christo and we were in the museum looking at some of his artwork, and his project manager approached us with this most solemn look on his face and told us they had just received news about of the death of the young woman in California. And at that moment, we all said we must go home. And Christo and Jeanne-Claude made the decision to close the project, out of respect for her family. Still to this day I can’t think about the Christo project without remembering the tragic death of this young woman.”

Despite the tragedy, The Umbrellas still have a lasting place in the memories of many area residents. “It almost didn’t last long enough, they were up, and they were here oh, what was it, three weeks? And then they were gone. But it never fails, when I drive through that area on I-5 today, in my mind’s eye, I can still see those umbrellas. It was a lasting, lasting impression,” said Shell.

Vikki Cruz agrees. “Christo was able to change the landscape in such a massive, and it forced people to change their perspectives on something that they knew so well.”

Meanwhile in New York, Christo is currently waiting on approval from the federal government for his latest project. The decision is due November 8th.

Joe Moore is the President and General Manager of KVPR / Valley Public Radio. He has led the station through major programming changes, the launch of KVPR Classical and the COVID-19 pandemic. Under his leadership the station was named California Non-Profit of the Year by Senator Melissa Hurtado (2019), and won a National Edward R. Murrow Award for investigative reporting (2022).