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These Miami islands turned pink, and the city reacted in all sorts of ways

This artist dressed up Miami’s islands in pink and changed the city forever

Artist Christo shares the fascinating story behind Surrounded Islands, 1980–1983, and takes questions from media during a preview at PAMM on Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018.
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Artist Christo shares the fascinating story behind Surrounded Islands, 1980–1983, and takes questions from media during a preview at PAMM on Tuesday, Oct. 2, 2018.

It’s not every day that islands get wrapped in pink.

For Miami, the spring of 1983 revolved around a Bulgarian artist and his plans. And also for environmentalists concerned about the impact on wildlife.

In the end, the islands were wrapped in pink plastic, and the city and the world paid attention.

Last year, “Surrounded Islands” — and Christo — returned as a Miami art museum exhibit.

Here is a look back at the controversy of the early 1980s, and the triumph surrounding Christo’s pink islands.

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Biscayne Bay islands were surrounded by pink fabric in 1983. Miami Herald File

Published May 7, 1983

IN THE PINK

With Commandant Christo setting a furious pace, an army of red eyes and pink shirts swept across Biscayne Bay Friday, leaving 10 of the artist’s 11 islands glowing in flowing coral skirts. By this afternoon, Christo aides said, the last pine-covered island should be surrounded with hot-pink plastic and the seven-mile island chain completed at last.

“It is more difficult than we thought,” said Ted Dougherty, supreme commander of the artist Christo’s 30-month project to encircle the islands in 6.5-million square feet of undulating, pink plastic.

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“We’ve got to give the workers a rest, but we’ll start again about 7 a.m.,” he said.

While last-minute work continued, many South Florida residents and tourists already were plotting weekend strategies to view the glittering bay spectacle. Beginning today, a group of Miami businessmen is offering tourists and residents a land, sea and air view of the completed project.

For $33 per person, sightseers will get a 15-minute ride above the Surrounded Islands, a 45-minute bus ride over causeways near the islands and a 90-minute boat tour through Biscayne Bay.

Christo aides, expecting heavy traffic along roads offering good views of the project, have hired two off-duty Miami police officers to direct weekend traffic along the 79th Street Causeway. The two motorcycle policemen will be along the causeway each day between 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

Some residents weren’t waiting for the last island to be surrounded before getting a glimpse. All day Friday, hundreds of Dade County art students and teachers flocked to the 14th-floor penthouse of the new Office of Bay Point, 4770 Biscayne Blvd., to see the islands. Armed with sketch pads and cameras, the students rotated in one-hour shifts, standing before a bank of windows. Ivan Kristeff, 64, was born in Christo’s native Bulgaria, but now lives in Lauderdale-by-the-Sea. He and his wife, Brigitte, journeyed to the 79th Street Causeway to get a peek at his countrymen’s work-in-progress. They liked what they saw.

“It takes a lot of courage to do something like this,” said Ivan. “It’s like Einstein said: ‘Imagination is more important than knowledge.”’

Said Brigitte: “This will be just like Running Fence another Christo project was in California. Before it was up, everybody complained. But once it was finished, everybody liked it.”

No one, perhaps, is more anxious to finish than Christo and his troops. This evening, a Miami disco intends to celebrate the project’s completion with a wall-to-wall, hot-pink bash for Christo, his wife, Jeanne-Claude, dozens of boat captains, island crew chiefs and all the workers in the effort. Between 7:30 pm. and 10 p.m., the Biscayne Boulevard disco employes, wrapped in pink cellophane, will offer pink champagne to 400 invited guests dancing beneath a cloud of pink balloons.

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“Surrounded Islands” in 1983.

PUBLISHED MAY 18, 1983

THE REMOVAL

Piece by piece and petal by petal, the bloom on those hot- pink, oversized water lilies symbolic of Miami’s temporary courtship of contemporary art began to fade Tuesday.

At dawn, about 75 workers began pulling in huge sections of pink polypropylene surrounding the two northernmost islands in the artist Christo’s Biscayne Bay collage. Surrounded Islands — which took 30 months, $3.1 million, 10 permits, seven public hearings, four court appearances and 400 workers to create — will have vanished by sundown Friday.

“We will probably have one entire island done this afternoon and maybe two finished by this evening,” said Sue Morgan, a Christo spokesman encamped at the group’s Pelican Harbor project site. Only about 75 workers — less than one-fourth the force needed to install the project — will be needed to dismantle it.

“We don’t have to pull the fabric toward the shore anymore, which makes things go a lot faster” Morgan said. Depending on the size of the section, between 10 and 20 workers were needed to pull the polypropylene to each island during installation of the project. After the pink fabric is unfastened from styrofoam beams floating 200 feet out from each island, the sections are towed to shore and rolled up in bundles, Morgan said.

Still unknown, is what is to become of the more than six miles of polypropylene that Christo used in the project.

“We still don’t know the answer to that,” Morgan said. “It may be donated to an aviary.”

Throughout early May, an army 400 strong worked diligently for a week, surrounding the last of 11 islands on May 6. Thousands of South Florida residents and tourists have gone out the last 10 days in helicopters, boats, cars and on foot to get a glimpse of the glowing pink canvas stretching across a portion of Biscayne Bay.

During the last two weeks, environmentalists reported that the project posed no problems for the area’s plant and animal life. “There have been no problems whatsoever that we’ve been able to document,” said Ed Swakon, an official with the Dade County Environmental Resources Management team. “We noticed no change in the sea grass under the fabric as a result of the project.”

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International artist Christo at an exhibit in 2018 at PAMM. Carl Juste Miami Herald File

THE WHOLE EVENT

Published Jan 2. 1983

In California, it was the running fence — 24 1/2 miles of white fabric undulating its way through Marin and Sonoma counties. In Kansas City, Christo covered park walkways with yellow polystyrene, and in Rifle, Colo., he slung a “curtain” of shimmering white between two Rocky mountains.

And come May, Miami, too, will have its own larger-than-life work of art by Christo: 11 islands in Biscayne Bay that will be surrounded by frangipani pink cloth, an oversize ode to Monet’s water lilies.

The giant water lilies will adorn the bay for two weeks starting May 4, but that’s only part of the picture. Christo’s art is not just the event; it’s the whole process —from public hearings to exhibits to cocktail parties to television appearances. Along the way, he captures it all in lithographs and drawings, in print, in photos and on film. In the past, Christo has stacked up mountains of oil drums, wrapped buildings and covered seashores.

He has never before made islands into enormous pink flowers. The islands run from Bakers Haulover at the north to the Venetian Causeway at the south. They will be surrounded by six million square feet of loosely woven polypropylene fabric attached to floating booms and secured with 600 specially made anchors.

Back in 1980, the Bulgarian-born Christo (his full name is Christo Javacheff, but he only uses his surname for credit cards and income taxes) was asked to create the central art project for the 1982 New World Festival of the Arts.

Christo and his French-born wife, Jeanne-Claude, came to Miami to scout, seeking an appropriate place to mount a project. They returned to New York, where Christo worked in secret for three months, sketching and drawing. “Surrounded Islands” will cost $2.25 million, and as is typical, Christo will raise all the money for it by selling his drawings and prints, the artistic “plans” for the project.

The Christos sell these from a four-story SoHo building that is home, studio and office. (Jeanne-Claude works as Christo’s business manager.)

In April 1981, “Surrounded Islands” was unveiled, and the convoluted process of gaining approvals and permits began. Christo’s “Surrounded Islands” staff -- two attorneys, a marine biologist, two ornithologists, a manatee expert, a marine engineer, four civil engineers and a building contractor — went to work. Approvals were needed from the cities of Miami and Miami Shores, Dade County, the Florida Department of Environmental Resources and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

Before long, though, it became clear that time was not on Christo’s side, and he announced that “Surrounded Islands” would be postponed until March 1983. As the approval process dragged on, the project was postponed once again.

Now plans call for the unfurling of the islands on May 4, 1983. There’s still lots to be done. In October, the Christo’s bought 6.4 million square feet of high-floatation fabric for $180,000.

On Dec. 1, 45 workers in Hialeah began cutting and sewing the fabric into its 11 island shapes, a five-month job. The fabric has been twice tested, once just off the Florida Keys and a second time at the Seaquarium in Orlando, where the manatee tank was twice covered over to study the mammals’ reaction to being swathed in bright pink. (On the first try, the manatees grew passionate under the pink; the second time they were indifferent to their colorful covering.)

In late spring, the anchors will be installed on the bay bottom, and then, on May 1 and 2, 400 workers will be sent out to clean up the garbage on the 11 islands.

The day before the islands actually are turned into Christo’s art, the fabric will be delivered to the islands (in inimitable style, by 32 boats intended to arrive simultaneously) and anchored. “Surrounded Islands” will be on view from the bayshore, from causeways, by boat — and for the spendthrift or adventuresome, by helicopter.

It may be fleeting, but the images will linger on — in our memories, in photographs, in films, in books.

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Christo in the 1980s. Miami

AGREEMENT

Published March 19, 1093

Handshakes and signatures Friday night settled it at long, tedious last: 5.5 million square feet of pink plastic fabric will surround 11 Biscayne Bay islands as a work of art for two weeks in May.

Wildlife paramedic Jack Kassewitz Jr., who sued to stop artist Christo Javacheff from doing his “Surrounded Islands” project, instead will act as an official watchdog for the U.S. District Court.

From a skiff rented by Javacheff — best known as Christo — it will be Kassewitz’s duty to stick up for the personal safety and peace of mind of every eagle, osprey, pelican, heron, egret, ibis, gull, tern, skimmer, cormorant, merganser, grebe, kingfisher, kingbird, black-whiskered and white-eyed vireo and not least the mangrove cuckoo and 53 other bird species abiding, dining or merely passing through the islands, in flight or at rest. The same goes for manatees, turtles, fish and every other child of nature thereabouts.

U.S. District Judge James Lawrence King, who had persuaded the antagonists to negotiate, spoke well of both and the attorneys who represented them and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and Dade County, whose issuance of permits for the project were technical targets of the Kassewitz lawsuit.

The judge was greatly pleased, and so declared. “Mr. Kassewitz, you have a very attractive, dramatic signature,” he said, making sure to compliment Christo’s as well.

For 10 hours in the federal courthouse Friday, following six hours Thursday, the zealous artist and the zealous environmentalist stood at flowing and ebbing loggerheads while attorneys negotiated their dispute.

“I can’t compromise my principles,” Kassewitz said Friday morning. He declared an intent to end the settlement talks and let Judge King choose a winner and a loser.

His attorney, Douglas Solomon, talked Kassewitz out of it. Christo then made an offer forming the basis for an agreement finally signed at 6:45 p.m. Just before it was read into the record by the judge, Kassewitz ambled across the courtroom to Christo and his wife, Jeanne-Claude.

They shook hands. Under the agreement, signed in blue ink with a green pen, Kassewitz was authorized by the court “to observe and monitor the progress of the Surrounded Islands project ... with leave to report in writing directly to this court any observed circumstance which appears to him to comprise a threat to endangered species ... or other wildlife, or any actual casualty appearing to be caused by the installation ... in the Biscayne Bay Aquatic Preserve.” Christo said he plans to begin hauling plastic on the night of May 2.

Any time Kassewitz thinks the setting up, exhibition or dismantling of the display endangers any creature or its habitat, Judge King will settle any disagreement.

After the islands are undraped, a panel of qualified scientists will be appointed to inspect the territory for a year — two years if they think it necessary. If they find damage that can be repaired by spending money, Christo is obliged to spend as much as $100,000 of it. If there is damage that cannot be repaired that way, Christo will have to donate two large artworks worth at least $36,000 each for public display in Dade County.

After two years, the county could sell the art to finance a trust fund for improvement of the bay.

“I truly hope this is going to be the most outstanding and magnificent work of art. I really wish this for you,” the judge told Christo.

“Mr. Kassewitz, it must be lonely at times, being the only voice in the community to step forward ... but a lot of people out there appreciate what you do.”

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