After the Cannes Lions International Festival of Creativity, I traveled to Lake Iseo near Milan, Italy, to be part of famed environmental artist Christo’s most recent triumph, the Floating Piers. I arrived as the sun was setting, threw down my bags and climbed into a boat that took me to a castle in the middle of the lake. From there I proceeded onto the Floating Piers, a three-kilometer-long, 16-meter-wide walkway in four parts, yellow fabric over inflated pontoons, with no guard rails, rocking gently as each boat passed.
Christo came out to lead a small group of friends on the walk on the Piers towards the town and a long dinner with the maestro. One had the deep sense of unreality, approaching a swan that had bedded down for the night with its head folded under its wing, as the water lapped onto the edges of the structure. Christo had asked that the Piers be cleared that night (the only time during the exhibition), but the young workers who had assembled the project wanted to pose for pictures with the artist, to shake his hand, to hug him as a friend.
While we were eating, I learned that his philosophy as an artist is simple; he will have neither partners nor sponsors. He told me that he dreams about projects like the Floating Piers, then searches the world for the ideal location. Christo and his wife Jeanne-Claude, who passed away in 2009, first conceived the installation in 1970. He initially thought about building the Piers in a lake in Japan, with its serene settings, but found Italy much more hospitable, not requiring guardrails and allowing him flexibility on operations. He never charges admission and refuses to take money from companies because he wants to imagine, then execute as he sees fit. His installations, he says, are for the people. He keeps his projects open for only 16 days because there is real value in scarcity, not in abundance.
He funds the projects by painting or drawing the creative concept, then selling these pieces to collectors. He said that he has a methodology for testing each project; in this case, he rented a former airplane hangar on the lake to do stress tests for weight and wind. He employs his fellow Bulgarians as project managers, most notably his nephew; he said that he has not returned to his native land since he fled Communism after World War II.
We spoke at length about The Gates in New York City, where he and Jeanne-Claude installed 7,503 gates with saffron-colored fabric panels across 23 miles of pathways in Central Park in the middle of February 2005. Like the Floating Piers, it was a work that took decades from concept to completion. I told him that I had strolled through the park with my eldest daughter, and how it had been transformed from the severity of a treeless park to a celebration of light and color as if at the ballet. He was so complimentary of then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who stared down various opponents and made the project possible after it had been rejected by three prior administrations. Christo continues to be based in a loft in Soho in New York, where he has worked for the past 30 years.
At age 81, Christo has remarkable vitality and determination. He wants to wrap a section of the Arkansas River in Colorado, a project supported by the governor but opposed by a key environmental group. He is considering the wrapping of more buildings, as he famously did in Berlin at the Reichstag in 1995. His one regret is losing Jeanne-Claude, the love of his life and business co-creator. He toils on, delighting millions with his flights of fancy, and making projects they dreamt of together a reality.
On the Saturday morning, he took me and others on a houseboat around the entire Floating Piers walkway. Thousands of residents and visitors cheered, calling his name, clapping and gesticulating, seeking a moment of his attention. He is a living embodiment of creativity who works for the joy of accomplishment, not for wealth or status. His is a life well lived.
Richard Edelman is president and CEO.