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Published: Thursday, 2/21/2008

Couple's work gives viewers new eyes to see their world

BY TAHREE LANE
BLADE STAFF WRITER

Artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude have fashioned miles of fabric (and hired thousands of workers) to outline rugged areas, to wrap a majestic building in Berlin and a Parisian bridge, and to surround (with hot pink fabric) 11 tiny islands in Florida's Biscayne Bay.

One project involved 3,100 umbrellas being opened at the same time throughout a 12-mile-long valley in Japan (blue umbrellas) and an 18-mile-long valley in California (yellow bumbershoots). Each umbrella was more than 19 feet high and 26 feet in diameter. The $26 million cost was paid for by the couple, who use only their first names.

In 2005, they installed 7,503 16-foot-tall, saffron-colored pan-

els at 12-foot intervals through 23 miles of walkways in New York City's Central Park.

The why and wherefore of what they have done for decades is captured in an exhibit in the Terhune Gallery at Owens Community College through

April 3. Dozens of posters include a mix of preliminary drawings by Christo as well as images of the finished work by their long-time photographer, Wolgang Volz.

"They're gorgeous," says Wynn Perry, part-time manager of the Terhune Gallery in the Center for Fine and Performing Arts.

Posters showing their wrappings of the Reichstag in Germany and the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris show how they draped and cinched fabric around the structures as a designer would drape a woman's fine gown. An image of wrapped trees in a Swiss park share a poster with Christo's drawing of the park's layout.

Why should you invest 30 minutes to see this free display?

Because their work is imaginative, joyful, and beautiful. Because it's art's triumph over bureaucracy: they spend years, decades even, talking to government clerks and landowners in an effort to obtain approval to install their temporary pieces.

And because they're an endangered species. They do not accept money for projects; they refuse grants and sponsorships, won't license posters, books, or movie deals, and reject the ideas of others. Such deals would compromise their aesthetic and alter their art, they say. "Our work," Christo has said, "is a scream of freedom."

Acting as their own dealers, they pay for all installations by selling original preparatory studies, original lithographs, and early work from the 1950s and 1960s.

Spend two hours getting to know these 72-year-old American immigrants better by watching movies about a couple of their major projects at a free 7 p.m. showing Tuesday in the theater next to the gallery in the Center for Fine and Performing Arts. Running Fence chronicles their four-year-project to install 24 miles of white nylon fabric from the Pacific coast into the California hills, and The Umbrellas is about the aforementioned project.

Their goal is to create temporary installations that nudge the viewer into perceiving the environment with new eyes. From the artists' Web site:

"You also get to see the fabric manifest things that cannot usually be seen, like the wind blowing, or the sun reflecting in ways it had not before.

"The effect lasts longer than the actual work of art. Years after every physical trace has been removed and the materials recycled, original visitors can still see and feel them in their minds when they return to the sites of the artworks."

It's akin to the ephemeral pleasure realized by spotting a rainbow.

Jeanne-Claude and Christo were born on the same day in 1935; she to French parents, he in Bulgaria, from which he fled Communist tyranny when he was 21. He went to Paris, where they met in 1958 when he was hired to paint a portrait of her mother.

In 1960, they had a son, Cyril, who is a poet, and by 1964, emigrated to the United States where they lived illegally in New York City for three years. They reside in the same building they did when they were new to America.

Gallery director Perry contacted them, hoping to lease a show of their original work, but the cost of shipping - $50,000 one way - dashed that idea. Talking to Jeanne-Claude, however, Perry learned that the couple has an educational outreach program in which they donate collections of posters (reproductions), which arrived in two shipping cylinders. Perry had them matted and some, framed. They'll be sold for between $250 and $400 with proceeds going toward OCC's arts programs.

The work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude will continue through April 3 in the Terhune Gallery in the Center for Fine and Performing Arts at Owens Community College. Information: 567-661-2721.

Contact Tahree Lane at: tlane@theblade.com or 419-724-6075.



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