We Can’t All Be Christo, But…

At the same time I was reading about Christo and Jeanne-Claude’s work, I was also reading Common Threads: Weaving Community Through Collaborative Eco-Art by Sharon Kallis, and that book gave me additional insights into ephemeral art.  My previous two posts on Christo were really just background information, so I could get here and talk about the ideas I like from Common Threads.

Kallis is an artist who is in involved with a community garden in a park in Vancouver, the Means of Production Garden.  It sounds like a great to place to visit, an ever-changing landscape of plants that can be used for art materials, and an outdoor studio where artists and community members can come to make art.

Both Christo and Kallis see value in impermanent art.


This is about our unstoppable desire to do these works.  They are irrational and absolutely unnecessary….This irrationality is linked to freedom… and that freedom is what appeals to the public.

…The work is in transition.  It is passing through.  Of course, the fabric is the principal element that translates that fragility, that vulnerability, the passing of our life, the going away without the the arrogance of wanting to be immortal.  (Christo and Jeanne-Claude in the Vogel Collection, p. 53)


Why does impermanence matter?…Think beyond the impact in this moment: the creative process can be a human and nature connector for people living and making right now.  We only have so much space; we only have so many resources.  If we want to encourage future generations to continue to work with their hands, to learn skills of both useful value and creative expression, we need to let go of our fairly modern view that things need to last forever.  When things are built that can truly disintegrate it leaves room for the next wave of ideas…Maybe impermanence is the best legacy of all. (Common Threads, pp. 81,82)

(Impermanent art was a hard concept for me to assimilate, but then I realized that a lot of us spend a lot of time and money perfecting one impermanent display every year — our Christmas trees.  We put hours into making them into a blend of tradition and originality that is meaningful to us — and then after a month we take them down.)

The work of both artists takes planning and preparation, but whereas Christo has the idea first and then chooses materials to express it, Kallis starts from plant materials that grow locally. She writes about the moment she made this decision:

One of my art installations was a series of 13 dresses…made of magnolia leaf skeletons gathered and sewn on an organza fabric backing.  In total about 10,000 leaves were collected after a winter of decomposing into a lace like structure.  I was invited to bring the dresses to a show in Ireland where they were installed in trees in an old cemetery on the edge of a 12th-centure priory ruin.

…It wasn’t  until I came home and got the message that the dresses were doing well, but a few had blown down and the sheep were grazing among them, that I realized the error of what I had done.  I had effectively gone to Ireland and littered my art across the landscape.  Someone else would eventually have to go and clean up the site behind me…

Without thinking I had made a monstrous hybrid, something both organic and inorganic that could not biodegrade.  I vowed to shift my practice radically.  If I was going to continue to put work outside, then it needed to be made in total from what I found in my surroundings that could biodegrade.  (pp. 3,4)

To me, there is also a huge contrast in the way these artists view their audiences.  One of the ranchers involved with Running Fence related,”He said on more that one occasion that the process, all the meetings, the environmental impact studies, were part of his art.”

Christo himself said:

But coming from a Communist country, I cannot be involved with anything collective.  This collectivism is something I cannot even bear.  This is one of our things — we never do collaborations… our work has so many parts.  But, we’re organizing everything.  We have control….We borrow the space, but we like to be in full control of the work.  (Vogel Collection, pp. 43,44)

The subtitle of Kallis’ book, Weaving Community, shows her contrasting approach to audience.  Her projects are not about displaying one artist’s personal vision, but about shifting people from passive viewers to participants, about creating a space that calls other people to dip into creativity for themselves :

The ‘third room’ refers in a collaborative context not to the work that either you or I would make as an individual, but to the metaphorical space between us that we can only inhabit together.  A third room is a conceptual room to which all participants bring their experiences, ideas and skills to share, creating something that could not happen without the energy and ability of everyone present…the unexpected opportunities that collectively we can discover when we join our efforts. (Common Threads, p. 59)

Impermanent artwork is perfect for these collaborative projects, because participants can just enjoy the art-making process without feeling that their work has to be perfect.  Working with local plant materials can also provide ways for people to learn about the environment and build ties to nature.

All kinds of projects and techniques are given in Common Threads, but the one that has stuck with me the most is Ephemeral Mosaics made from plant parts.  It would take a lot of preparation, but I think it would be a lovely activity to do with a group at a nature festival.  I created a quick one to illustrate this post, and I found the process very absorbing.

One of Kallis’ hints is to use the patterns found in nature to build the mosaic, rather than venturing into faces or houses, so for this one I started from the vine in the center, and just laid out the leaves on either side.

Leaves from plants all found within 1 square meter.

As I worked I noticed that the undersides of the leaves were lighter, and flipped some of them for more contrast.  Then it started reminding me of traditional Tree of Life patterns in weaving and quilting, so I added large leaves at the bottom as that vase shape that is often in those patterns.  And I finished with a ring of tiny blossoms.

Finished mosaic example.

I really loved taking the time to notice the subtle color variations and the texture differences in the leaves, and the small creatures that added focal points.

Leaves with snails.

Wasp-made paper for the centerpiece.

Texture of tiny snail shell.

I really loved this process.  I learned a lot about the plants on my own property, and saw details in them that I could use in new textile pieces.  And after trying it for myself, I think this process could be very engaging for groups.

Some of the other techniques in the book are making cordage and baskets, using natural dyes, and making anti-erosion mats from dried stems.  There are also practical tips for planning and working with groups and local governments.

I’m glad I read both of these books at the same time, but for myself, I find the collaborative eco-art approach more intriguing and more doable.