By Hiya Swanhuyser
In September of 1975, a large-scale piece of art called the Running Fence existed briefly in the place I call home. It was up, 24-and-a-half miles of billowing white cloth, and two weeks later, it was gone. Or was it?
In some ways, the fence is still there.
“The Smithsonian declared it one of the most important artworks of the latter half of the 20th century, so it’s got that kind of recognition,” says Eric Stanley, the History Curator and Associate Director of the Museum of Sonoma County. The short timeline, he says, was baked in. “The fence was only intended to last, and did only last, a couple of weeks, so it’s a very ephemeral artwork that wasn’t designed to stay out on the land.”
The Running Fence’s creators, French environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, described it in both pragmatic and poetic terms: They describe years of collaborations with farmers, contentious discussions at public hearings, plus “Three sessions at the Superior Courts of California, the drafting of a 450-page Environmental Impact Report and the temporary use of the hills, the sky and the ocean.”
Stanley explains that the fence stood on private rural agricultural land in the western parts of Sonoma and Marin counties, a region which “Wasn’t at ALL on the international art scene,” which is an understatement. It was just cows out there.
A piece of land with boundaries is known as either a parcel, a piece, a tract, maybe acreage. In spoken language in western Sonoma and Marin counties, it’s most often known as “so-and-so’s place.” It’s defined by property lines—inside those boundaries, so-and-so has rights, and people fight over which ones they have and where the lines ought to be. Today, the rights to fight over are water rights, but in other times, they’ve been about boundary gates, holes in the lines where people, cows, sheep, or cars might pass through them. Very often, the rights are about who can build what where. In order to know your rights, or so-and-so’s rights, you need to see the property lines, to mark them. People usually do this with a fence.
When I was four, my father, pregnant mother, and I walked just over the property line of land they would soon buy in what is technically Sebastopol, California, although it’s closer to the town of Occidental. As the name indicates, Occidental is situated to the west. They looked southwest toward the Pacific over Two Rock, over Tomales, from high Vinegar Ridge. The ocean, as we soon picked up the local phrasing to say, was “three ridges over.” Map measurements don’t hold water in a hilly country; we learned to mark out flatness with the poetical-practical words “as the crow flies.” Three ridges over, 12 miles as the crow flies, the Running Fence dipped its toes in the Pacific. On a clear day and from a patch of earth you can no longer stand on, you could see it. On that September day, likely warm, clear, and windless, each swell of the land would have shown a filmy white line, bounding over the hills and disappearing into the distance. The fence may not be written in my own memory, but if I didn’t remember it, my folks sure did.
“We could see about three-quarters of a mile of it, of the fence, from where we stood,” my father says, after we walk over the property line in 2021, to stand squinting in the neighbors’ driveway, as close as we can get to the spot in question. Dad isn’t an art enthusiast, but the builder and rebel in him immediately connected to the beauty and massive scale of the fence. “It was,” he tells me, “a fuckin’ thrill.” Today, he’s an old country hand; he knows how to read the coastal weather, he’s farmed the land and put his hands on forests and into grasslands. But back then, even though he was a young person from a big city, he got it, and kept it.
Was the Running Fence ephemeral? Temporary, spectral, delicate? It looked that way, but wasn’t it—isn’t it permanently inscribed in things like global art history, local visual memory, and regional land use meeting minutes? The project itself is subtitled “1972-1976,” and the artists considered those land use hearings, board of supervisors’ meetings, and drives down country roads to ask intrusive questions to be part of their process, in this piece and others. “The whole process of gaining permission to put up the Running Fence was part of the artwork,” Stanley says. “They declared everybody who was there as part of the conversation as being part of the project itself.” Jeanne-Claude, speaking to a documentary film camera in the town of Valley Ford during the 1976 installation, imagined it engrained in human consciousness. “The real dimensions of the Running Fence are political, social, and economic. And that’s a very very large dimension indeed.”
The boundaries of U.S. law, of the white-majority Christian-culture settler world, are only 250 years old: fences are new. The people whose ancestors stewarded this land for the previous ten or twenty thousand years may have a different view of whose rights to build what where begin and end. Same might go for so-and-so’s right to drain the aquifers and dump literal shit in the “Russian” river, as people routinely do. Not enough conversation takes place between fence folk and Coast Miwok to know for sure.
What is art?
Is it important?
Settler culture would never ask those questions about a ranch. We know the answers, about a ranch, already. A ranch makes beef, food, chicken, eggs, and milk, which sustain us, and yes, we will pay. We would like to get a good deal though. The answers about art are never so solid, rather put up, viewed, taken down again.
“They became fascinated with the idea of the continental divide.” says Stanley, reflecting on the artists’ decision to put the Running Fence here, exactly. Divisions and boundaries fascinated them. So did land and water, and people. But they were visual animals, of course, and in contemporary interviews, Stanley says, the artists said “A lot of it had to do with aesthetics…the hillsides, the rolling hills, and the connection to the ocean. They even talked about the moist air and the way the light worked.”
Western Sonoma and Marin county children both growing and grown share memories of the Running Fence, separate from the rest of the world. Some of us saw it but didn’t see it, like me. Others, like Rayme Waters, saw it and never forgot it. Of 1976, she says, “My dad, who was an artist, was very interested in the project, so we drove out to the coast to see where it went in the water. I remember doing that, although I think I was only five! Such an unusual thing to see, with the white sheets along the grassland. I think we might have even driven out there twice, because he thought it was so cool.”
Waters remembers surprisingly clearly the nebulous world of a five-year-old, contending with what is real and what isn’t. “It probably had a very good effect on me—just seeing that, and thinking it was normal. ‘This is just what people do, as a reasonable expression of themselves!’ I remember asking my parents ‘Oh, is that a big clothesline?’ Right? Because as a five-year-old, that’s what you’d think.”
Her recall extends to politics. “My dad, who was a supporter of the environment, I would say, didn’t have any issue with it. Since it was so temporary and had such a minimal footprint, he felt the benefits outweighed the cost.”
The artists’ “leave no trace” policy, long before that was a familiar concept, meant that afterward, every part of the fence (poles, grommets, hooks, and the thousands of giant fabric panels) was given to the ranchers, and none of it left a mark on the land. As a result, it’s common for locals to own panels of “Christo’s Fence.” (Only in 1994 did the artists change their shared name to “Christo and Jeanne-Claude,” although their creative endeavors had, it seems, long been an equal partnership. In Albert and David Maysles’ 1978 documentary with Charlotte Zwerin, “Running Fence,” Jeanne-Claude’s work, whether diplomatic, administrative, or physical, is unmistakably that of a co-creator.) In that way, the Running Fence endures, written semi-permanently inside basements and storage sheds, where the physical body, the famous fabric paneling, currently stays.
Most children, whether they saw the original art event or not, are busy with their own concerns and don’t want to hear “The story of where this enormous white cloth came from.” Not even if “it’s important. It was a really big deal in the 1970s!” So they don’t know what it is, squirming allergically when adults attempt to enlighten them. But they dance under it, recite lines in front of it, scream through haunted houses made of it. They don’t notice it lining the community center ceiling to baffle sound. They sell the livestock they’ve raised in front of it, and that’s enough for them.
But sometimes they do notice it. At age ten or so, they could get asked to help carry it into the barn so we can put it over the hay bales for people to sit on at the dance, for example. Then they wonder why it’s so huge, what it’s made of, and why it’s so oddly unlikely to catch fire, although if you really try you can set it on fire a little.
Once old enough to focus, SonoMarin kids eventually learn more about the Running Fence. At first they marvel at the engineering feat and the cool pictures; they are teenagers now, so they can perceive such things. They begin to wonder what in hell made someone do this incredibly difficult weird thing in the first place. It’s art’s moment, the gap in the boundary line between art and a building consciousness. But after those few seconds of marvel and wonder, a reaction. We, they, (you) suddenly snarl and loudly announce that “this guy” was a “fucking idiot.” We emit a short bout of homophobia borne in on the backs of the French and artists, and then it’s head down, back to the hunt for beer; art time is over. We turn our backs on it, because it’s so queer, and we’re scared that if we turn up queer, a child of ranch background could hurt us very badly, body and soul. We do, and they do, after all. Art is dangerous, even when not physically present.
Waters recalls little interest in art among her regional brethren. “I talked to a Christo fan a few years ago,” she says, identifying a group I didn’t realize I was in. “And I said, ‘Yeah, I grew up in Sonoma County when they had the Running Fence.’ And they were like ‘What!? No way! Are you serious?’ So if it’s somebody that understands that kind of art, then it’s a really cool thing to have in your experience bank. But I don’t remember ever talking about it to anyone else in Sonoma County.”
If fortunate, after a number of years, the children of these regions go on to a less polarized analysis of the work of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Mostly, hopefully, back to that marvel and wonder. If lucky and when grown, Sonoma County children get married in front of dearly beloved who have been artfully guided down redwood forest paths by it.
In my family’s house, built by my father on the parcel from which we saw the Running Fence, two framed posters have pride of place above the television. Both show the fence, and are rare because signed by Christo, who in general wasn’t into signing things. The posters show different sections of fence, in similar aspect: the foregrounds show the fence large and detailed, while in the immediate backgrounds, tight s-curves of billowing fabric make crazy patterns around gold hills, receding quickly into bright thready lines.
A perennial discussion about these images in our house
is how to hang them
A perennial discussion about these images in our house is how to hang them: the large close panels of fence are on opposite sides of the pictures, the long-perspective threading-out likewise in a mirrored arrangement. Hang them side by side, so the large patches meet? This looks best on the wall, but isn’t at all how the fence really was. Hang them so the distanced portions meet? This looks weird and M.C. Escher-y, an attention grab that isn’t what the fence was about. So the two remain in a convoluted abutment, inside an ongoing conversation, imperfect and treasured.
The Running Fence leans inherently toward friendly satire. It’s a fence, right, but it also isn’t a fence. It doesn’t enclose anything or confer rights on anyone. It belittles other fences, but it had to go begging to cross them. My mother remembers (from secondhand, and after the fact, but not long after and not thirdhand) the artists persuading holdouts with gifts of color television sets.
Fetterless, all-in art opens up strange spaces in familiar territory. I’d never have guessed rural and agricultural Northern Californians would have split ranks over French hippie art—I’d have said farm people live to circle wagons against any whiff of what they’d call abnormality. That they, ranchers and those who dress like them and drive large pickup trucks in order to emulate them, would band together like a white wall and hoot about excluding gay art. And that is just not what happened.
The Running Fence opened up a strange space in my familiar territory, in its past. “The reaction to it, especially here in Sonoma and Marin counties was fascinating. It didn’t fall out the way you would have anticipated,” Stanley says. “You ended up with artists who were opposed to it, and ranchers, what you would consider a very conservative community, in favor of it.”
In the end, 59 ranch families gave their permission for the fence to cross their land, often on the grounds that art is important. Somewhat famously, a Valley Ford resident made a personal connection, Stanley remembers. “Jean Nicholson, I think that was her name, said ‘I bake a pie, and it doesn’t last, but I consider it a work of art.’” Who was being satirized?
Unsurprisingly, the history curator takes the long view. “It’s most definitely got a legacy,” Stanley says, explaining the 1970s was a time of growth in the area, leading to tension over land use, and environmentalism as we know it began to sprout. “People took sides; people like Bill Kortum, who was considered the dean of Sonoma County environmentalism.” Kortum, notably, was part of founding the now-powerful Coastal Commission. “He was opposed to it.”
The overall effect of the environmentalists’ concerns at the time was to delay the project, but also to instigate practices that are fairly routine today. The Running Fence was among the first art projects ever preceded by an Environmental Impact Report.
“The impact was to put people in this kind of conversation, whether they were in favor of it or not.”
Back in 2021: down to the basement. “Get the wheelbarrow, we’re going to need it,” my mother decides, looking at a dusty black plastic garbage bag, one of two. The thing, apparently, is heavy. The barrow itself defies logic; it doesn’t look like it should work but before I’m done wondering about the nearby canning kettle (she says it has a rust hole, but here it is, she didn’t toss it) she’s out the door, headed around back of the house. “Come on, you can do it!” she says, talking to herself or the wheelbarrow as they head up to the meadow, tilting and wobbling but picking up speed on the uphill.
On the grass, among redwoods, we tear open the bag and dump the white package on the ground. To unfold it, my mother and I grab opposite corners and run, so the fabric catches air. The first unfold shows five feet, then twenty, then fifty, the fence panel’s full stretch. We marvel, and count at it as it glows in the thickening dark—four rows of stitching tack each of thirteen panels one to the next. At bottom and top, grommets once held hooks that connected to guywires and earth anchors. Beneath them, I see waving seams.
“Not industrially done,” Mom says approvingly, tracing the stitches with her fingers. “Somebody made this on a sewing machine.” She loves the natural world, and the hand goods of the human animal seem like our connection to it. Snails make a shell, and people make art.
We take off our shoes and walk on it—you’re allowed. The woven nylon throws light, and it feels thin and cool. The spiky grass can’t poke through it. And if it gets dirty, you just wash it, irreplaceable world-class art treasure though it may be.
“You have to find one of those jumbo machines. Not every laundromat has them, but you can find them,” Mom says, ever the responsible steward, thinking long-term about what she can do with her hands. If this is still part of the art installation, was it really temporary? Permanence is more like the old-growth Coastal Redwood standing nearby, “Scorned as timber, beloved of the sky” as Emily Carr put it, and the tree is roughly 1300 years old thanks to its “imperfections.” The life of the fence is not quite half a century, and what is that?
To her, it’s crucial that she paid only twenty-five dollars each for her two panels.
“Bought them from Johnny,” she says, meaning the Republican neighbor who for many years lived across the cow field from us. Although Johnny literally slammed the door closed the first time we visited him, our families quickly became co-farmers, co-gardeners, co-operators, and ultimately friends. “He had them for the Boy Scouts. When the boys all got through with the Scouts, though, he just didn’t want the hassle of storing them. I guess he got them from a rancher, and in the spirit of the thing, he passed them along without getting a lot of money. I think they’ve all gone to people who wanted to use them for community good works. At least that’s what was supposed to happen to them, that’s what Christo wanted.”
Was it ephemeral? Its story has outlasted them both; Christo and Jeanne-Claude are gone, but the art has a long tail. The Running Fence is still here, satirically refusing to be a boundary.