Rifle, CO

The day the orange curtain fell on Colorado

David Heitz

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The Valley Curtain hangs in Rifle, Colo.Wolfgang Volz/Copyright Christo and Jeanne-Claude

By David Heitz / NewsBreak Denver

(Denver, Colo.) Sometimes memories about quirky things remain the most vivid. Certainly, the people who witnessed a huge orange curtain hanging across a mountain range 50 years ago, now the subject of a new seminar in Vail, haven’t forgotten it.

Known as “Valley Curtain,” the monstrous project erected in 1972 required more than two years of preparation. Artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude dreamed up the idea.

“My family was going to Disneyland from Boulder when I was a kid, and we were headed west on I-70 when we heard about this on the radio,” said Paul Parker in a Facebook post. “My dad pulled off at the Rifle exit and we drove up and saw this installation, then we got back on the road. I remember it more than I remember anything at Disneyland.”

Valley Curtain was designed for the Grand Hogback ridge near Rifle, according to the National Gallery of Art. “A swath of 200,200 square feet of orange nylon polyamide fabric was suspended across Rifle Gap at a width of 1,250 feet, and a height from 365 feet at each end to 182 feet at the center,” the gallery recalls on its website.

Physically, draping the curtain between two mountains proved a major engineering feat. The curtain was strung across almost 1,400 feet of cable weighing 61 tons. Almost 900 tons of concrete anchored the cables.

A duality quickly emerged about Valley Curtain. Although it took 28 months to realize the project, the artwork lasted only 28 hours. A gust of wind in excess of 60 mph damaged the massive installation. It had to be dismantled.

‘Coolest thing to ever happen in Rifle’

Even 50 years later, people still debate whether the effort to hang the curtain proved worthwhile. Gov. Jared Polis posted the story of the curtain on his Facebook page this week. Coloradans like Parker chimed in.

But not everyone found the Valley Curtain cooler than Disneyland. Many found The Valley Curtain to be an ugly blemish upon a natural landscape. “Christo was controversial but I always loved those massive installations,” said Brook Harned.

“This was the coolest thing to ever happen in Rifle,” added Carrie MaKenna.

Vail Symposium to host Valley Curtain event

The undertaking seemed as monumental as building Noah’s ark. “The 4½-acre curtain of orange fabric hanging across a Colorado highway took a team of more than 100 engineers, construction workers, and volunteers 28 months to plan and erect, to the delight of local residents, visitors and the art world alike,” according to the Vail Symposium website. “The dichotomy of its immense scale and brief existence enthralls people to this day.”

The symposium will host a presentation on The Valley Curtain from 7 to 8:30 p.m. at Vail Mountain School. Tickets can be purchased online.

According to the artists’ website, Dr. Ernest C. Harris of Ken R. White Company, Denver, designed Valley Curtain. A and H Builders, Inc. of Boulder erected the curtain.

Speakers include artists’ inner circle

Speakers at the seminar will include surviving friends and family of Christo and Jeanne-Claude, who died in 2020 and 2009, respectively. They will include:

• Jonathan Henery, Christo’s nephew. He manages the couple’s studio and home in New York City and runs The Christo and Jeanne-Claude Foundation.

• Dan Telleen, Vail resident and local businessman who, as a student at SummerVail, traveled to Rifle and helped with the Valley Curtain installation.

• Wolfgang Volz, assistant photographer of the Valley Curtain project.

• Vladimir Yavachev, Christo’s nephew, who at age 17 helped bring Valley Curtain to life.

• David Yust, professor emeritus of Colorado State University and world-renowned artist and friend of Christo and Jeanne-Claude.

What did it mean?

A common query about The Valley Curtain: What was it supposed to mean? It didn’t have to mean anything, to hear Christo explain it.

“Of course, I make drawings and sketches, but I consider them preparation work for the work I’ve got to do,” Christo says in a short film on the making of the Valley Curtain called “Christo’s Valley Curtain.” He explains how the hard work – dealing with engineering and construction issues, obtaining permission from the government – produces something incredibly cool.

“All these things give me something I can never imagine,” Christo says in the documentary.

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I've been in the news business 35 years, spending much of my career in editing roles at local newspapers in Los Angeles, Detroit, and the Quad-Cities of Illinois and Iowa. Upon moving to Denver in 2018, I began experiencing severe mental illness due to several traumatic experiences. I became homeless on the street for about a year before spending time in the state mental hospital. I am living proof that people can rebound from mental illness with proper treatment, even after experiencing homelessness. I consider myself a lucky guy to live in a great place like Denver. I hope my writing reflects the passion I have for living here.

Denver, CO
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