More than 1,700 giant yellow umbrellas fluttered open Wednesday on the barren, tan slopes of the Tejon Pass north of Los Angeles, completing one of the largest undertakings in modern art history--the creation of twin forests of colorful canopies in California and Japan by environmental artist Christo.
The strange sight produced jubilation, wisecracks, bafflement and tears of joy. The expected traffic jams did not materialize, but the California Highway Patrol blamed a collision between two trucks on a driver gawking at the spectacle lining Interstate 5.
The CHP estimated that 10,000 spectators were scattered through the sparsely populated hills for the highly publicized event. Even as the California umbrellas were unfurled, however, those in Japan were being temporarily closed due to predictions of stormy weather.
Christo avoided the limelight during the unveiling, preferring to hike with a small party in the hills among his cabin-sized parasols.
"I am overwhelmed," he said jubilantly, shortly after arriving by helicopter on a mountain peak above I-5. "My wife and I, we only have one child," he said, climbing down a steep ravine. "These are all my children now."
His "children"--1,760 of them, each weighing 488 pounds and standing almost 20 feet high--will be on display for three weeks along an 18-mile stretch of I-5 straddling the Kern County line about 60 miles north of Los Angeles.
The project is the most expensive yet for Christo, a Bulgarian-born U.S. citizen who previously ran a nylon fence across 24.5 miles of Northern California, surrounded whole islands off the coast of Florida in fabric and wrapped the Pont Neuf bridge in Paris in gold cloth. Christo spent six years and $26 million of his own money on the umbrella project.
Seen from a helicopter, the Tejon hillsides appeared to have sprouted a crop of whimsy. The 28-foot-wide umbrellas--their sturdy supports virtually invisible from above--seemed to hover above the ground like shimmering wings, reaching from the floor of the pass to the ridge tops, golden-yellow cloth canopies billowing.
Looking south from the Grapevine, the grand sweep of the umbrellas reflected sunlight like giant mirrors sprinkled across the hills. Some stood incongruously next to the concrete ribbon of the freeway, looking like forgotten fruit stands.
Some marched in long columns to peaks and ridgelines; others stood isolated like lonely sentinels. Three stood in a greenish pool of water, ribbed undersides reflecting the pond's surface.
Some motorists were impressed.
Artist Susan Lilly drove from Sebastopol to catch the dawn opening. "Art is for our spirit and our soul," she said, breaking into tears. "This has touched me immeasurably."
But others, particularly among the truckers who make up an endless parade through the steep pass, were surprised and bewildered by the spectacle, filling the citizens band radio with puzzled talk.
"What are the umbrellas up for?" asked "Big Foot" Danny Wolfe, of Meeker, Okla.
Responded a fellow trucker: "It's some kind of religious cult."
Not all onlookers were admirers.
"Doesn't just a little part of you think that this is a bit ridiculous?" asked artist Yuriko Takata of San Francisco. "Isn't there a better way to spend $26 million?"
The CHP put on 16 extra patrol cars, at Christo's expense, to handle the anticipated crowds. A Caltrans spokesman said that traffic was about 40% greater than normal for a weekday, but that is well within the highway's capacity and did not slow the flow of vehicles.
Streets in small towns along the pass were packed with customers and vendors doing a brisk business in souvenirs. "Most of the people who usually come here are lost and looking for directions," said Carla Sisney, 21, at a souvenir stand off the Frazier Park exit. At the nearby Okie Girl restaurant, customers were lined up out the door.
"Most people who live here think it's a real pain," said delivery man Matt McCombs. "I'll sure be glad when it's over."
The California umbrellas are meant to mirror a similar array of 1,340 blue umbrellas set up about 75 miles north of Tokyo. As Christo had planned, the Japanese and California umbrellas were opened on the same day. Because of the 16-hour time difference between the two areas, Christo was able to oversee the opening in Japan and jet to Los Angeles in time to see the Tejon umbrellas opened too.
The umbrellas--which had been erected over a period of 10 months and kept furled--were opened one day late because of heavy rains in Japan. On Wednesday night, Christo announced that the umbrellas in Japan were being temporarily closed to protect them from the high winds of an approaching typhoon, but that the closure would not affect the California umbrellas.
In California, workers who had come from all over the country to take part started opening the umbrellas about 6:30 a.m., an hour earlier than expected. "We just couldn't help ourselves," said Tony Moretti of Hammondsport, N.Y.
About seven hours later, a semitrailer truck driven by Billy Hicks of Forest, Miss., crashed into the rear of a tanker truck between Fort Tejon and Lebec, the CHP said. Neither driver was injured. CHP Officer Herb Pasos said Hicks was paying more attention to the umbrellas than the road.
"I wasn't looking at the umbrellas," Hicks insisted to Pasos. "I've seen things like this in Mississippi before. Well, not quite that big, but sort of like that."
The umbrella-opening crews worked in groups of about 10. "It's like primitive architecture, like the first shelter," Randy Suzuki said as he opened the highest umbrella in the project, atop a hill about 5,040 feet above sea level.
"It's beautiful," said Suzuki, 24, a recent USC architecture graduate. "It's actually really beautiful."
By about 1:30 p.m., all were open except two with mechanical problems. Christo staffers said they expected replacements by nightfall.
The staffers, many of whom had worked on the project full time for two years, were elated and exhausted. U.S. project director Tom Golden, 70, hugged staff members, ranchers and art collectors. He broke into tears as he described the unfolding as "awesome," then fretted like a parent when he heard that one of the umbrellas had stuck.
"Oh, no. Oh, no," he said. "No. 1,006 will not go up properly."
Meanwhile Christo, dressed in denim jacket, jeans and boots covered with tape to ward off thorny underbrush, went to great lengths to keep to himself.
He walked the hills accompanied only by the project photographer and a film documentary crew, and briefly by a Times reporter. To keep his location from eavesdroppers, he was referred to on the project's radio communications system as "the visitor," and the helipad he arrived at was code-named "the island."
"Today, I just want this day to look at the project," he said. "I can not give just a little love here and a little love there. I must see it all."
With the project finally in full blossom, the critical assessments, general public reaction--and, perhaps, weekend traffic jams--are yet to come.
Although local hotels have been booked up for weeks, there were still sites left at private campgrounds. Almost 200 tent and RV sites were available three miles south of the umbrellas at Pyramid Lake RV Park.
But tourists seeking one of 175 free campsites in the Los Padres National Forest will have to compete with deer hunters, said Valerie Shaw of the U.S. Forest Service. Deer hunting season began Oct. 5 and ends Nov. 3.
Times staff writers Richard Lee Colvin, Tracey Kaplan, Amy Pyle and Jim Herron Zamora contributed to this story.
UMBRELLA UPDATE: Information on viewing Christo's "The Umbrellas." B2
Umbrella Update (San Fernando Valley Edition, A26)
Wednesday was the grand opening of artist Christo's latest temporary outdoor art project, "The Umbrellas." Here is some help in viewing:
Open: Through Oct. 30.
Where: Along Interstate 5 for 18 miles north from the intersection of California 138 to the bottom of the Grapevine in the San Joaquin Valley.
Directions: Take Interstate 5 north from Los Angeles, about 60 miles from downtown.
Turnarounds: At Quail Lake Road, Gorman, Frazier Park, Lebec and Ft. Tejon exits.
Viewing areas: Designated along the freeway and on Gorman Post, Lebec, Digier and Grapevine roads.
Best viewing times: Daylight hours, although a few umbrellas along the highway and at rest stops--especially in Gorman--are lit well enough to be viewed at night. The sun rises today at 6:54 a.m. and sets at 6:26 p.m.
Traffic report: Traffic volume was 40% above average on Interstate 5 through the Grapevine on Wednesday and there was no slowing due to congestion, Caltrans officials said. Traffic is expected to be about the same today. No reports of slowing on alternate routes.
Alternate routes: To avoid possible delays caused by the project, take U.S. 101 north or California 14 to California 58 to Bakersfield.
Lodging: None available. All motel and hotel rooms are booked, but campsites are available. Almost 200 tent and RV sites were open three miles south of the umbrellas at Pyramid Lake RV Park.
Hints: Wear comfortable walking shoes, sunscreen and a hat. Carry food and water.
Additional details: Available at an information center in Gorman.
The Umbrellas Unveiled
Artist Christo's latest project, "The Umbrellas," has been unfurled about 60 miles north of Los Angeles. The umbrellas, which will remain standing through Oct. 30, are located along an 18-mile stretch of Interstate 5. For more information and a daily update, please see page B2.