Bakersfield Remembers Christo's Umbrellas - 25 Years Later

Nov 8, 2016

Twenty-five years ago this fall, 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 brings us this report, which first aired on FM89 in 2011.  

Today a trip on Interstate 5 from the San Joaquin Valley up the hill to LA might be a rather mundane drive, notable only for the traffic. But back in 1991, a then 11 year-old Vikki Cruz found it mesmerizing.

“All of a sudden, the hillsides were just scattered with these giant pops of yellow, and it was really quiet beautiful...walking around and just seeing the thousands and thousands of yellow umbrellas,” said Cruz.

The umbrellas weren’t there to protect people from the rain or sun. Instead they were part of a temporary art project by the husband and wife team of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who made an international reputation by doing things like wrapping islands in Biscayne Bay with fabric, and doing the same to Berlin’s Reichstag. On both Kern County’s Tejon Ranch, and the rice paddies of Ibaraki, Japan, the team installed over 3,000 umbrellas, blue ones in Japan, and yellow ones in California, each standing nearly 20 feet tall.

Cruz, who eventually went on to become the curator of the Bakersfield Museum of Art, says while the project may have been temporary, it changed the way people viewed the landscape, even today.

“I think anyone who lived in or around Kern County will remember the umbrellas. It absolutely left an indelible mark on people’s memory,” said Cruz.

"It almost didn't last long enough, they were up, and they were here 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." - Mary K. Shell

One of those who won’t forget the umbrellas is Allene Zanger, who at the time was a senior executive with Tejon Ranch. She worked closely with Christo and Jeanne-Claude on the project starting in 1987.

“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.

While she said the umbrellas themselves were impressive, both Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s personalities also left a mark on her.

“Jeanne-Claude, with her bright red hair was a dynamo, and she was one of the sharpest and shrewdest business people I’ve ever come across. She negotiated with class and with a real fervor, and for that you had to admire her. People often talk about Christo, but they were a partnership. It was Christo and Jeanne-Claude. And 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.”

Zanger and Cruz aren’t the only ones with powerful memories of the project. In 2011 on the 20th anniversary of the umbrellas, I spoke on the phone with Christo. While Jeanne-Claude died in 2009, and the umbrellas were only on display for 18 days before they were dismantled, he still spoke of the project in the present tense.

“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 richest 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.”

Christo told me the site on the Tejon Ranch was unique, because it gave him opportunities to show people different perspectives of the work and to judge the scale of the umbrellas.

“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 heights. Literally the umbrellas were very close to the road. In California they were sitting under the umbrellas having picnics, the post office, near the church. The same thing in Japan,” said Christo.

Christo and Jeanne-Claude financed the $26 million project through the sale of their artworks, but still needed the approval of the landowners, Kern County and dozens of other agencies. But rather than complain about the difficulty of getting approvals, he told me that with his works, the process of jumping through various legal and regulatory hoops becomes part of the art itself.

“The permitting process really developed the identity of the project. We do not know what is the work of art before we start the permitting process. The permitting process also creates this participatory public. We are probably the only artists in the world where our work is discussed before it physically exists,” said Christo.

Former Kern County Supervisor Mary K. Shell was one of the people involved in that process. She remembers trying to win over skeptics and people who didn’t know about Christo’s international reputation and were a little concerned about what he had in mind.

"We are probably the only artists in the world where our work is discussed before it physically exists." - Christo

“Well, [laughter], 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 as a very positive event.”

There was one downside, a windstorm toppled one of the umbrellas, killing a woman from Camarillo, and causing the team to call for an early end to the project on October 27, 1991.

While the umbrellas are now gone, Shell said she and many others can still see them today, 25 years later.

“You know, it almost didn’t last long enough, they were up, and they were here 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.