|Ted Prescott, distinguished professor of art, with Wei Lai '06, who interviewed world-famous artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude for her senior art seminar.
Messiah student interviews
When Ted Prescott, distinguished professor of art, assigned the students in this year's senior art seminar an interview with an artist, he anticipated that they would simply contact local artists. But for Wei Lei '06, this was an opportunity to contact one of her most admired artist couples: the world-famous Christo and Jeanne-Claude. Together, the artists have completed astonishing works of environment art, including the recent exhibition of "The Gates" in New York City's Central Park. Below is an excerpt from a paper that Wei Lei wrote about her experience.
The projects of Christo and Jeanne-Claude are truly original, simple, and elegant. When asked about his early influences, Christo said, “They are not a mystery. Everything I owe to my parents. I was born 70 years ago in Bulgaria.” He paused and looked up at Jeanne-Claude for a split of a second. She gazed back and giggled. They share the same birth date. Christo continued: “And I have very good parents. My mother saw that I was making drawings as a little boy, and she decided that I should have private lessons. . . . I had three times a week private lessons of painting, drawing, and sculpture, making scale models for architecture, when I was 5 or 6 years old. And of course I loved it. I remember I was going after school; I was going to the lesson using real oil paint, the nice smell. Not water paint. I used clay to make sculpture. Cut cardboard to make scale models, all those things like that, and I learned how to calculate all those things.
“In Bulgaria, my country, when I was studying art in the late ’40s and early ’50s, you went to art school, studied painting, sculpture, decorative art, and architectures in the same school, and it was eight years. Four years you studied everything. . . . And after four years, doing all those general studies, you are specialized to become a painter, or to become a sculptor or architect, in another four years. When I escaped from [Bulgaria] to the west, I was at my fourth year, I had not decided what I should do, to become a sculptor, painter, architect. And you see very well that I’m still not decided.”
"I was studying in Bulgaria during the Communist time. I was doing propaganda art, working at property farms, and all that was part of the interest to do art outside of the academic world. Probably this is my biggest influence. Of course, there were many important artists of that time who were young, who were revolutionary artists, basically all the great Soviet Russian artists, who were doing art in the early ’20s: Rodchenko; constructivists, not only artists, but movie directors and architects who did other works; designers; Lissitzky; Moholy-Nagy. But they were practicing their art after the Bolshevik revolution between 1917 and 1929, when Stalin came to power. And there was the great moment when many artists tried to move art in public space, in the streets, in the railroad station, on the countryside, doing temporary installation. That is the first installation. And between 1919 and 29, there was the famine in Russia, there was the civil war in Russia, and the artists and architects, and theatre designers, movie directors, were going to the countryside to energize people for the revolution. But all that is part of my Marxist education.”
As a young artist, Christo accepted commissions to paint portraits, merely as a source of income. Although very capable, he often related the process to prostitution. Today the artists have purposefully earned their luxury of freedom. They are not represented by any gallery, although they work with many. Their projects are totally financed by themselves, with the money they accumulate from selling Christo’s sculptures and preparatory works.
Upon completion of “The Gates” project for Central Park, New York City, in February 2005, Jeanne-Claude exclaimed in a news interview, “It’s our baby!” That is how the artists view all of their projects.
“We don’t build success. We build works of art, of joy and beauty. We are not in the movie business, so we never use the word success. But which one we like the best, we love them all equally. Because they are so very different. So we like each one for its own specific different quality. And if it has to be a favorite one, it’s always the next one.”
The artists had good advice for young artists. Christo said that “the creative process is a desire, and you need to develop that desire.” Jeanne-Claude added that it is important to figure out what one person wants to achieve, and focus on it: “Never be dispersed.”