Gates Work Like a Walk in the Park

by Steve Ballard

Gates Crew
The subway train rounded the curve as it headed toward the stop at 46th and Bliss in Queens, New York. Whew!… I had completed what I thought would be the most difficult phase of my week of work on The Gates, a public art installation being compared to the Great Sphinx. Two yellow buses were being boarded by the fledgling installation workers who would be transported to a remote location among oriental wholesale food warehouses in the borough of Maspeth. Before getting on, I recognized official Gates Photographer Wolfgang Volz waiting for the morning sun to illuminate the buses. From that point on, my experience working for Christo and Jeanne-Claude was no less than exhilarating.
Upon entering the warehouse, we were given a numbered card. By the time the last bus load of workers had arrived, I was already getting cold standing on the concrete floor with 100 strangers of a total of 600 on the crew. We were the first of six groups for orientation, but none of us new that we were already being studied to see which of us were crew captain material. The building had been almost completely emptied of the saffron PVC poles. They had already been placed in strategic locations in Central Park. There were two twenty-foot wide maps of the park showing the ultimate destination of each of the 7500 gates. In the center of the warehouse, one lone gate was erected for demonstration purposes. With the crowd below, it resembled a hanging scaffold ominously waiting for its next victim.
Some activity at a makeshift podium marked the arrival of Christo in an uncharacteristic black field jacket and partner Jeanne-Claude, whose wiry backlit red hair created the effect of an angelic aura around her face. They were introduced by the amiable Chief Engineer Vince Davenport and his lucid wife Jonita, Chief of Operations, two people I would come to admire in the following days. A microphone boom shot out over the group. A film crew was already at work. After a little ceremonious applause, we were introduced to what Jeanne-Claude referred to as their family, which consisted of Christo’s nephew from Bulgaria and a few other key players in the project. A seemingly lo-tech presentation of slides was projected on a dirty wall while the artists proceeded to give us minute details on all their previous public art projects, like Valley Curtain and the Wrapped Reichstag for which two of my friends worked. I assumed that everyone else on the crew would have familiarized themselves with these projects before reaching this point. It was two years since I first got on the Gates website and registered to work. I was anxious to get on with the training.
Using the numbered cards, we were broken down into three groups and lead to different locations in the building. One of the groups filled out the usual employment forms, were photographed for ID cards, and asked to sign release forms for publicity. My group was introduced to the heavy steel gandy dancer’s sticks loaned by the Metro Transit Association. This tool would be used for leverage while removing orange plastic safety markers cinched under the 630 pound steel bases already in place at the park. The third group was introduced to the leveling plate system for making each pole sit perfectly vertical on its base. Finally we went out back of the warehouse to practice erecting some of the gates. Once the mounting plates were in place on the bases, we slid the cross members into the poles much like the system used on metal picture frames. Workers on each of the two corners used nylon straps to make sure the fabric cleared the beveled corners. It took about six people to lift the u-shaped unit into vertical position, slide it over an aluminum tray onto the base plate bolts, screw self-locking nuts down, and finally lower an orange box over the base plate. We were told that each crew would have to average about 22 gates per day. No problem I thought, if the weather cooperated.
The City
I had three days to revel in the great Big Apple before starting work. Sure, I wanted to throw my grain of sand in for public art and be part of making art history, but half my motivation for signing on with The Gates was being able to experience New York City in a sizable chunk, while being paid for some physical work in the elements. I had good friends and a step-son, all who lived five minutes from Central Park. They most graciously made their dwellings available to me for the duration of my stay.
The morning after orientation, I walked through Central Park on my way to the Museum of Modern Art. I checked out the steel bases along the walkways, and noticed a press office set up in a trailer at one entrance to the park. At MOMA, I mentioned my working on The Gates to an official, who allowed me to pass by the long lines waiting for tickets. Though amass with people, the new MOMA was marvelous. The artworks now had space to breath while being complimented by new architectural details. In the next few days, I did the boogie-woogie down Fifth Avenue, catching other shows at the Whitney, Guggenheim, and Frick Museums. Nights were spent either in search of cozy bohemian restaurants near Broadway or cramped in one of the many cool jazz clubs in Greenwich Village.
Monday morning I took the convenient five minute walk from my friend’s apartment over to the Boathouse in Central Park, coined “Gates Central” from that day on. I spotted the typical trailer one might see at a construction sight where Vince and Jonita now kept operations. As I joined the throngs of workers and media people entering the building, my feelings of importance for being on the installation crew, were quickly extinguished. It was a lot like my first day at college when registering for classes; long lines with people making new friends, just one of 600 “barbarians”, as the New York Times referred to us later that day. We got our orange ID cards, a dull gray smock with the orange Gates logo, and a piece of paper printed with Area 2, Section 6. The dining hall had been split up into 7 areas corresponding to portions of the Park. At Area 2 we assembled our section crew with the help of Area Captain Nick, a tall friendly fellow sporting his blue vest. I assumed these men and women in blue were veterans of previous Christo/Jeanne-Claude artworks.
The Crew
Our crew originated from the far reaches of United States. As we waited for the rest of the team members to arrive, five of us chimed in with our names and where we were from. Pre-selected to be our captain was a makeup artist named Naomi, originally from Texas. Of Mexican-American decent, she had a big toothy smile and raven black hair held back with a stocking cap. She was now living in Sleepy Hollow, just outside of New York City. David, an engineer from Seattle, was a short and strong looking fellow not wearing much heavy clothing. Dixie was a sock salesperson from Portland. She wore a “weather proof” leather jacket lined with bubble wrap and a fur cap with floppy dog ears. She had blue green eyes that sparked, and a smile that beamed. Danny, of Taiwanese dissent, scraped out a living as a book seller while taking film classes in Morris County, New Jersey. Melinda was French Canadian by geographical origin, young and pretty, with curly black tresses spilling out of her hooded parka. She professed to be a “gypsy traveler” who had spent a year casting bells at Arcosanti, the architectural school in Arizona. Her tiny feminine appearance belied a strong frame, from lifting heavy crucibles during bronze pours at her current job at a Brooklyn foundry.
A tall, lean and unshaven fellow with wavy black hair and a Frank Zappa soul patch ambled up. Sporting a huge fur hat, Wade would later be known as “medicine man” for his knowledge of alternative medicine. Fitting the mold of a European looking model when not so disheveled, he qualified for sporadic catered events of the wealthy, many of whom were planning their penthouse parties for the unfurling of The Gates. To round out the crew, a sophisticated film studies student named Lesley was thrown into the mix. And at last minute, a huge fellow named Kevin who had been “booted off” another team, lumbered into our ranks as we walked off to our site with section map in hand. This was my kick, being thrown like a cup of bar dice into an unpredictable association with a bunch of free spirits. As it turned out, I had at least 15 years on most of them. I wondered if we would click together, if any of us would peter out, get hurt, be a pain in the behind? I decided to just focus on doing the job in as amiable fashion as possible.
Area 2 section 6
Our site was located next to the Mall, near 73rd West, where branches of fairy-tale trees swooped out to greet us and benches lined the walkway. Luckily, it was one of the staging areas for the poles, just a twelve minute walk from the Boathouse. This was significant because it meant that we did not have to be bused to our site, and that poles would be just a short walk with a cart. I was struck by the view of the sprawling Sheep Meadow lawn, contrasted through a slight mist with the looming high-rise apartment buildings that flanked Central Park West.
With much revelry, we had the honor of erecting the first gate in the whole park. Throughout the day, foot traffic often encountered us at the moment we had placed the cross member into the ends of the poles. With the whole unit laying crossways on the walkway a passerby had to either jump over the two foot high barricade or go around on the grass. In muddy spots we lifted baby strollers over the poles. There were some disgruntled looks and questions from New Yorkers who had no idea what was happening, despite the ample news coverage on National Public Radio and in several publications. At times like these we had to remember that we were ambassadors for the Gates, as Jeanne-Claude instructed us. As she put it, we could not tell them to “go fry an egg”, but that we had to keep working. Later in the week, the onlookers had checked the news and many gave their support. In one instance, teams of canines and their owners swarmed around us, making for a gleeful interchange of howls and laughter.
Our team worked well together completing 26 of a total of 108 gates in our section. At that rate we would finish a day early on Thursday. I reasoned that Vince allowed for a day of frigid weather or a snow storm that would prevent us from working. He informed us that with the blizzard they received the week before, he had to buy six snow blowers and 20 shovels for his forklift crews to clear space for the steel bases. Dilly wagons were used to bring the hardware around on the walkways. Danny and Dixie were appointed to do the leveling, moving ahead of the team while the rest of us erected the gates. Some snags arose, as a glitch in distribution of materials slowed us down. The temperature never dipped below freezing all week, but those first hours of the day felt mighty crisp. It rained lightly one day, which made gripping the poles difficult.
Most of the workers had brief encounters with Christo and Jeanne-Claude throughout the week. Lining us up outside the Boathouse with our backs to them, the artists endeavored to sign all 600 of our smocks. In a less humbling situation, our crew was graced with their presence at our lunch table at the Boathouse, where we had a chance to talk in a relaxed atmosphere with no cameras in sight. Later that week, they appeared at our work site for some group photos taken with our cameras by their security entourage.
One of the most fascinating aspects of the whole project was the way the artists made use of these planned events to get maximum media coverage. Because of our crew’s location near a staging point with road access, Christo pulled up in his limousine followed by two vehicles, from which scurried a dozen Chinese and German television reporters. He walked up to me as microphone booms swiftly swung over him. He asked how things were going to which I replied, “Great!”, but added that we were puzzled just two minutes before, because Naomi discovered that her map indicated a gate location at the entrance of a small path coming out of the Sheep Meadow. We overlooked it because the steel bases were not in place. Christo strode over to the location with the trail of newsmen following his long gate. I assumed he explained to Naomi what the reasoning was for the apparent mishap. Ah, perfect, I thought, an opportunity for Christo to demonstrate to the press how intimately knew the details of the project, for he had personally measured the length of all the paths over the years. It was the only time I saw him without Jeanne-Claude at his side.
We were the first crew to finish a section, a day early as I predicted. Wolfgang photographed us in the act of consuming a box of chocolates I packed from home to celebrate. We assumed we would be helping other teams finish. That must have been impractical because we were told to spend the day before the unfurling inspecting our section and removing every speck of banding material, cardboard and litter in sight. When we finished our section, we meandered through the some wooded areas noting that the wild flowers, like The Gates, were ready to bloom.
The Unfurling
The morning of unfurling the fabric I hopped off the Cross Town bus at 79th and Central Park West so that I could see the action around the Sheep Meadow where Mayor Bloomberg and the artists were scheduled to open the first cocoon. I was within a stone’s throw of my section but my path was blocked by a sea of people, cameras, squad cars, and policemen on horses. I noticed a drive cordoned off with bike racks skirting the crowd in the direction I was headed. I asked a tough looking cop with a Smokey Bear hat if I could pass. Seeing my Gates smock and ID card he simply swung the bike rack aside. It was one of the most ecstatic, yet laughable moments of the whole week, passing all those folks hanging over the racks. Should I skip, do cartwheels, strut like a rooster in a barn yard? The dull drone of the security police helicopters brought me to my senses. I just strode tall and proud until a woman surreptitiously called me over to her. She heard through the media that the crews would be handing out saffron fabric samples. I informed her that the samples were being distributed to the crew at the Boathouse that morning so I had none. If I did, I wondered what kind of ruckus would have resulted if I handed one out. Later that day I came close to finding out.
Wade had the honor of unfurling the first gate in our section at 9:00 a.m. With a hook Vince had fashioned from a painter’s pole and roller, a 16-foot strip of two inch wide Velcro released the cocoon material that held the fabric to the cross member. With a loud “bonk” the cardboard tube, on which the fabric was rolled, hit the concrete as the saffron rip-stop nylon flung free in the wind. As the tube bounced I scooped it up with my foot careful that it did not hit onlookers. We were working simultaneously with all the other crews, so the crowds were evenly dispersed throughout park. Still, the sounds of loud applause and dozens of digital cameras skittering their mega pixels pervaded the area while video tapes reeled. We were used to the attention from the media, but it did not lessen the excitement as a great moment in art history passed.
As we worked our way up our section, we accumulated large plastic bags full of the orange cocoons. People began asking for them with all kinds of heartwarming reasons why they were deserving of a souvenir. Word came down the pike that we should start handing them out. That was big mistake. People got braver and braver until one person groped dangerously close to a hook as a tube dropped. We had reports that at least one worker had been hit in the nose by one of the tubes. We quietly resolved to bag the cocoons and bring them down the hill, where unsuspecting individuals were awarded a souvenir. Later we were informed that we had received “nefarious” information. All materials were to be recycled.
The Afterglow
After all the gates had been unfurled, we were assigned to act as monitors for the rest of the day. It was exciting to watch the reactions of all the visitors to the park while eavesdropping on their mostly positive assessments of the project. No formal receptions or parties had been planned, so our crew celebrated quietly that night at a French restaurant just off the park on Amsterdam Street and 83rd. The following evening, a nightclub in Greenwich Village invited all the installation workers to watch a big screen presentation of a live 60 Minutes interview with Christo and Jeanne-Claude.
The first thing I saw when I walked in the club was a bodacious Dixie wearing a fluorescent strawberry blond wig, flapper dress, and raccoon coat. Who would have guessed she would outdo her tough work outfit with this head turning display. Then I noticed the place was packed with people in all shades of yellow to orange clothing and accessories, including orange contact lenses. We waited impatiently while 60 Minutes dragged through another story, taunting us with images of the Gates before commercial breaks. Resounding applause arose from the melded sea of orange, err…um, gold, yes SAFFRON, as the two artists once again sashayed their way through another interview claiming that there is no symbolism in The Gates, just a thing of beauty for New York, paid for with the sale of Christo’s drawings. As usual, Christo would barely finish a sentence when Jeanne-Claude would chime in. We danced the rest of the night away and our crew bid farewell at the doors of the club, knowing there was a good chance we would not see each other again.
Settling into the realization that my work stint with the Gates was finished, I walked the north end of the park by myself the next day reflecting on the wonderful events of the past week. The crisp weather and bright sunshine brought out the best of installation as the trees branch shadows fell over the fabric. One of my favorite photos is of a worker passing under a dark bridge with long early morning shadows of a gate stretching in his path. Dixie and Wade stayed on as monitors at double the pay. They informed me that the energy was less enthusiastic now that the anticipation of the unfurling had passed. I left New York for home, and two days later the snow fell and gave a whole new look and excitement to the park. Dixie spent 8 hours shoveling one day and ached all over. Some newly hired monitors had not counted on this, and quite.
I made some good friends working on Area 2, Section 6. We worked hard while intimately experiencing one of the greatest parks in one of the greatest cities, with two of the art world’s most respected individuals. I will cherish the memory of The Gates using the knowledge acquired for all I am worth.

Steve Ballard
Copyright 2005

Gates Crew Ballard tightens down the bolts on a leveling plate.
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