'Gates' Unfurled: Artists' Saffron Banners Blossom
in Central Park
NEW YORK — Orlando artist Anna McCambridge stood under the tall, shiny, orange gate in the northwest corner of Central Park, stamping her feet with impatience, excitement and the need to keep warm.
At precisely 8:45 a.m. Saturday she was joined by six crewmates. Together, they grasped a long, aluminum pole in their gloved hands, and guided the hooked end toward a cocoon of bright orange plastic on the gate's crossbeam. Spiking the hook through a loop at the end of a Velcro closure, they gave a sharp, sideways tug.
The cocoon split open, the orange cover flew off and a cardboard cylinder thunked to the ground, unfurling a saffron-colored banner into the icy air.
"Yes!" shouted McCambridge, 38, who had worked all week installing the gates.
For the next two hours, she and 600 fellow volunteers repeated the unfurling process along the park's 23 miles of walkways. By midmorning, 7,500 pleated panels were billowing in the breeze, creating a winding, rolling river of gold among the winter-bare trees.
The massive enterprise is "The Gates," the latest environmental sculpture by artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude -- the husband-wife team who gave Florida "Surrounded Islands" in 1983, encircling 11 islands in Biscayne Bay with flamingo-pink fabric.
Costing $21 million, and 26 years in the planning, "The Gates" is the city's largest-ever public art project.
The unfurling began at 8:31 a.m. Saturday as an enthusiastic crowd chanted the countdown: "Five! Four! Three! Two! One!" Then, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a longtime supporter of the concept, raised a metal pole to release fabric from the top of one of the 16-foot-high gates.
Financed by the sale of Christo's drawings and sculptures, and installed by paid volunteers such as McCambridge, the free spectacle is expected to attract thousands of art lovers from around the world, generating an estimated $80 million for the city and $3 million for the park.
"This is the final step in bringing it to life," said McCambridge, as another cocoon ruptured. "This is art for everyone. A gift. It brings excitement to so many people," she said, her cheeks rosy with windburn.
All around her, onlookers snapped pictures, dogs romped, and children in bright snowsuits helped stash empty cylinders on an orange pushcart.
"It's fantastic," said Joan Wicks, a New Yorker from the Upper East Side, who had wrapped a saffron scarf over her black coat in honor of the occasion.
"I love the spirit it's engendered. Everyone who lives along the park is having brunches to celebrate," she said.
Her husband, David Wicks, praised "the human scale" of the work.
"Christo's other projects were so massive. I love the fact that you can walk through these gates, under the fabric, that you can become a part of it," he said.
"Of course," he said, "There's the cranky crowd that doesn't like it. But that's New York."
Andrew MacNair, an architect and teacher at Columbia University who lives on the park's west side, admitted he was skeptical at first.
"But this is fantastic," he said. "It's an amazing piece of construction. It's also a social craft -- a piece of theater."
"Frederick L. Olmsted would approve," said MacNair, referring to the Central Park superintendent who pioneered the development of the park and is regarded as the father of American landscape architecture.
"Olmsted saw the park in terms of views and vistas. These gates frame the views, emphasize the vistas," MacNair said.
Like all of Bulgarian-born Christo's grand creations, "The Gates, Central Park, New York, 1979-2005," as it is officially named, will have a brief existence -- 16 days from unfurling to dismantling and recycling of materials.
"It adds immediacy," said Joan Wicks. "You come, you see it and it's gone."
McCambridge learned in late 2003 about "The Gates" through an article in an art magazine. When she read that helpers were needed to install the colossal sculpture, she fired off an e-mail volunteering her services.
"I thought it was so exciting that an artist of relevance and fame was doing a project where artists of lesser renown could get involved," she said.
"I studied Christo's work in art-history classes when I was a student at UCF. I missed a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to see his work when `Surrounded Islands' was in Miami. I didn't want to miss out again."
By day, McCambridge is a graphic designer with Miller Sellen Conner & Walsh (MSCW), an Orlando community planning, design and engineering firm. After hours, she works on her own art.
It was not until last December that McCambridge learned she was among the 1,100 volunteers selected for the project. She would be on one of 75 installation crews, each assigned to erect 100 gates and earning $6.25 an hour.
Arriving in the city Feb. 4, she moved in with friends. The next morning, she reported for a four-hour training session and -- big thrill -- a brief meeting with Christo and Jeanne-Claude at a warehouse near Queens.
Then, at 7 a.m. Monday through Friday, McCambridge made her way to the Central Park boathouse, assembly point for the installation crews.
Downing hot coffee and scones, she joined in the hubbub of chatter with newfound friends, before boarding a yellow school bus for her sector of the park.
The volunteers came from 45 states. McCambridge was one of four Floridians. Her crew included a screenwriter, a furniture importer and a graphic-design student. Some volunteers were veterans of Christo projects.
"This is my seventh," said Iris Sandkuhler, 46, an artist from San Francisco.
"We're participating right now in art history," she said. "I am so in awe of how Christo can do this. Not just the sheer size, but also dealing with the bureaucracy and politics. He proves anything is possible if you set your mind to it. It's inspiring."
McCambridge and crew worked in a wooded dell with a frozen pond in the center, and a flock of quacking mallards drowning out the hum of traffic.
On the first day, they raised just 10 gates. By Thursday, 98 were in position. On Friday, they worked on the final two.
First, they adjusted plates atop a pair of rectangular steel bases. Next, they bolted three beams together to form the gate. Then they pushed it upright, bolted the posts onto the plates, and slid a neat orange casing over the bolts.
As they raised their final gate, two familiar figures arrived: Christo, crackling with energy, and Jean-Claude, red-orange hair wild in the wind. With rapid flourishes, the pair autographed the crew's orange-and-gray souvenir vests.
The physical labor in the cold, fresh air was exhausting, said McCambridge, who one night fell asleep at the dinner table.
"But I would suffer through a lot more to be part of this," she said Friday. "The grandeur, the scope, the thrill of creating something from nothing -- it's like giving birth. It's very emotional," she said.
"With the flags unfurled on Saturday, it'll be even more amazing. I'll probably cry when I see it," she said.
TINA FINEBERG FOR THE ASSOCIATED PRESS
BOX: $21 MILLION — Estimated cost of `The Gates' project.
26 YEARS — Length of time project was in planning.
7,500 GATES — Each 16 feet high and formed by 3 beams.
1.089 MILLION — Yards of saffron material used.
16 DAYS — Length of time project will be on display.