Jun 22, 2020

Christo’s Passing and a Memorable Trip Over the Grapevine

The conceptual/environmental sculptor was a “wrap artist”

By Ed Goldman
I was sorry to hear of the passing of the artist Christo three weeks ago, and it took until now for me to realize the role one of his California works played in my life.

As you know, Christo Vladimirov Javacheff—whom you could characterize as an environmental artist, a sculptor, a Dadaist and a supremely effective, charming conman, yet not be wrong on any count—created and executed truly monumental projects. Like: in 1961, when he and his wife and partner, Jeanne-Claude, put 89 oil barrels on a narrow road in Paris to render it unusable for a time. They felt their work was a statement about the Berlin Wall, which had been built the year before.

I thought of the couple as wrap artists: They encased Biscayne Bay in Miami in 6.5 million square feet of pink fabric. And they created a series of color-shrouded stanchions or easels or whatever they were, in New York’s Central Park (a project they called “The Gates”). 

But what they also did was to open dozens of 12-foot-high, bright yellow umbrellas on an eight-mile stretch of the Grapevine on I-5, in California’s Tehachapi Mountains—a seasonally perilous segment of freeway that, once you’ve surmounted it heading south, deposits you in the Antelope Valley. Next stop: L.A traffic gridlock.

Photo-Illustration, from an Associated Press photo.

Not quite 30 years ago I was making the nine-hour drive from Sacramento to Anaheim to give a talk on marketing and media at a conference of The American Association of Nurse Attorneys. I was running a fever of almost 101 degrees but had agreed to do the gig on behalf of the nurse-attorney who was president of TAANA and happened to work for one of the region’s larger law firms at the time, McDonough, Holland & Allen—which was my most valued public relations client.

I was driving instead of flying to save money—even with McDonough as a client, my consultancy was having a thin year and my writing career, except for a couple of monthly magazine columns, was on life support. The country was in a one-year recession and I felt it. 

Because I’d been getting a good deal of work from Southern California newspapers and production studios until that year, and my mother lived there, I’d made this drive many times, less for economic reasons than for the fun of barreling down the Golden State, often with my wife and little girl, stopping in small towns along the way and keeping as loose a schedule as possible. 

When my daughter was a toddler, we switched from taking I-5—which has very few enjoyable stops, with the exception of Los Banos (to get our fill of Andersen’s Pea Soup) and Coalinga (to get our fill of Harris Ranch hamburgers)—to Highway 99. While that route added about an hour to the drive, 99 had and still has an abundance of small towns and little parks along the way we could pull up to and let Jessica exhaust herself for about 45 minutes on the tot-lot equipment. Traveling with a tyke is sometimes similar to traveling with a puppy in that both, when physically tired, are momentarily contented.

Even though I had the AC blasting and turned down to Arctic in our 1981 Volvo—a car you needed to buy two of in those days so you could always leave one in the shop—I was sweating profusely. I was wishing I’d just gnawed on the bullet, hopped on a Southwest flight to John Wayne International, then explained to my daughter years later why, despite her straight-A average, love of art and literature and fluency in French, trucking school sounded like a great option.

Then, shortly after I passed Bakersfield, a sign appeared above the freeway: “40 Miles to Umbrellas.” For a moment I wondered if a new town had sprung up along I-5 since my last sojourn. So we’d now have Taft, Arvin, Maricopa but also Umbrellas, which would have a slogan like “Let Your Smile Be in Umbrellas.” Or even something clever.

In any event, I soon realized I was about to drive through the latest Christo exhibit, and suddenly, I didn’t feel as though I had a fever. Adrenaline was dispatched to my synapses, with ague quickly replaced by agog and agape. The way the near-neon umbrellas colored the roadsides as my Volvo lurched up the Grapevine made me recall that memorable moment in “The Wizard of Oz” when black-and-white Dorothy steps out of her recently tornado-borne home into the Crayola riot of a land somewhere over the rainbow.

I pulled into Anaheim a couple of hours later, showered, napped for an hour and gave my dinner talk on marketing. Afterward, I was festooned with a number of business cards from nurse-attorneys, asking if I were available to consult with them on ways to promote their practices. To my credit, I did not respond, even once, by saying, “Well, what on earth do you think I just drove 500 miles for?” Instead, I said of course, jotted down additional information on what their particular challenges were and made dates to call or meet with them.

The next morning, I arose very early so I could get home to my wife and daughter but also so I could connect one more time with the magical universe of Christo. His work had amused and intrigued me but also given me new hope. And this is what made him, despite all of the labels that adhered to him in his 84 years with the Department of Earth, a true artist.

Ed Goldman's column appears almost every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. A former daily columnist for the Sacramento Business Journal, as well as monthly columnist for Sacramento Magazine and Comstock’s Business Magazine, he’s the author of five books, two plays and one musical (so far).