Thanks to environmental artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude, New York's famous Central Park is in the midst of 16 days unique in its history. The leafy refuge in the middle of Manhattan is the setting for one of the largest temporary artworks in history?a $20 million project called simply The Gates.


Even New Yorkers who have followed all the buzz surrounding the project were taken by surprise entering the park during the days leading up to the opening of the project [February 12].  Workers erected 7,530 open ?gates? or doorways straddling the park?s famous serpentine paths. Each of the bright orange gates stands about five meters high, and is topped with a thick panel of saffron cloth.


?It?s very difficult to put it in words because we are, before everything, visual artists,? Jeanne-Claude told VOA.


Christo?s wife and artistic partner for the past 47 years, Jeanne-Claude says the winter sun will create many colors out of the nylon fabric. ?It will be extremely beautiful to look at and to experience,? she says. ?Then what is involved is your feet, because you are walking. But also your heart because you will feel that beauty, and even your ears because when those big cloth panels are moving in the wind, they will have their own sound. So it is a very personal experience.?


Jeanne-Claude says she and her husband are exclusively concerned with their own personal experience with The Gates. ?Exactly like all true artists, we create our works of art for us, not for the public,? she says. ?If other people like it, then it is only a bonus, nothing else.?


That works for Jacqueline Zanone de Los Santos -- an artist, art teacher and lifelong Christo admirer who traveled to New York from Oklahoma to help construct the project. She toiled alongside more than 640 other paid workers erecting The Gates. Between turns of the wrench she was using to bolt the frame to its base, Ms. De Los Santos offered some advice to help people get the most from their experience. 


?I think it?s very simple, and the less you think about it the more it?ll work its charm on you,? she said. ?You look up against the orange arches, and you look up against the branches of the trees, and you just look at what is the natural beauty of the park in a new way. And then it?s gone and you have the park back and you have this memory of ?Wow!?

Wow is a word you hear often in response to the mammoth artistic undertakings of Christo and Jeanne-Claude. The pair once wrapped the entire German Reichstag in 100,000 square meters of polypropylene fabric. In another installation, they surrounded 11 Florida islands with hot pink cloth.    


New York City Parks Commissioner Adrian Benape notes that it took the couple 26 years to get all the permits for The Gates. ?I?ve compared it to a sort of artistic Halley?s Comet,? he says. ?But as much as I?m going to enjoy seeing The Gates, I can?t really relax until it?s over and the last piece of steel has been removed and it has gone well.?


Some observers -- like Paul, a Central Park groundskeeper -- would just as soon the gates were already gone. Not only does he consider the structures potentially dangerous, but ?I do not like the art,? he says. ?It seems too grandiose, too large in scale. It?s a beautiful place and I wish it could be left to its own beauty rather than superimposing other beauty on it.?

On the other hand, the Hackett family of Leeds, England came upon The Gates by chance as they visited New York before the project was completed?and Martin Hackett was thrilled, even though the saffron panels were yet to be unfurled. ?I think it looks great,? he said. ?But that?s New York: artistic, fun, loud, vibrant, different. Unfortunately, we?re going to miss the end product because we?re leaving tomorrow.?


The Hacketts did have a chance to take something home with them to help remember the experience. Merchandising is an integral part of the city?s fabric, as well. And at one entrance to the park, a park preservation group was selling Gates project souvenirs. 

?I bought a hat and a refrigerator magnet,? said an eager customer named Martha. ?I am thinking of coming back to buy more things for out-of-towners who can?t come, with work and stuff. It?s really exciting. I think I?m going to miss it already!?