Valerie Olafson's photo work of 'The Gates' at RVC

A photo documentary by teacher and professional photographer Valerie Olafson, of a creation spanning New York’s Central Park named “The Gates,” is being displayed at Rock Valley College.

Six displays, set at the entrance of Rock Valley’s library from Oct. 5 until Nov. 2, contain photographs of “The Gates” as well as mementos from Olafson’s work on the project. Her pass into the park and a fabric sample of the saffron nylon used in the creation of 7,503 “gates” sit in cases along with pictures of the finished artwork.

“The Gates,” the latest enterprise by “environmental artists” Christo and Jeanne-Claude, is a series of large, nylon panels placed throughout the walking paths in New York’s Central Park. Six hundred workers constructed 16 feet tall steel frames on which the brightly colored panels, ranging from 5-1/2 to 18 feet in width, were hung.

Olafson took more than nine rolls of film while working on the project in New York. While only a limited number of these photos are currently on display, she will be presenting the entire series during a slideshow presentation Nov. 1 as a part of Rock Valley’s Tuesday Night Lectures. The presentation will contain pictures ranging from her initial training day to the opening day, Feb. 12, 2005.

Olafson, a photography instructor at Rock Valley College, first learned of the planned construction in Central Park when the artists, husband and wife Christo and Jeanne-Claude, spoke at Rockford College in 2003. Having been a longtime fan of the artists, Olafson felt thrilled when she learned that the public would have an opportunity to work on the project, which had been in the works since the 1970s but was only recently accepted by New York City officials.

“I went online the next day and signed up!” she said, noting that, “The worst thing they could say was, ‘No.’”

It was not until a year later that Olafson was notified she had made the first cut and was asked to send in a paragraph about her life. In December 2004, she was informed she had been accepted as a worker on the project.

She recalled the excitement her friends felt for her, saying: “My friends were so amazed. Most of them hadn’t bothered to sign, figuring they wouldn’t get selected.”

Some family members were not as impressed. The artist remembers her father wondering about her excitement.

“He really didn’t understand why it was such a big deal,” she said.

Then he began to see coverage in the national and international media.

Olafson has always felt “The Gates” would draw worldwide attention. While working on the piece, she was interviewed by the Washington Post as well as two European newspapers.

In her mind, it went without saying that she would be documenting her experience through her own art form, photography.

Olafson also found joy in the everyday presence of Christo and Jeanne-Claude at the site. She was able to work with the artists she had long been a fan of and had often used as examples when teaching about art’s interaction with the everyday world.

“Art is more than just the Mona Lisa,” said Olafson, explaining how she tried to get students interested in the artwork impacting the culture they live in.

After the Nov. 1 lecture and show, Olafson feels her next project needs to be a vacation, saying, “I’ve been going nonstop for a long time.”

Olafson currently has another photo documentary, “Urban/Urbane,” at Octane InterLounge in downtown Rockford. Selected pictures from New York, as well as photos taken in Chicago and Rockford, are on display. The show opened during Rockford’s ArtScene Sept. 30, and will run for two more months.

For more information about either the photo display or Tuesday Lecture Series, call Rock Valley College at 921-7821.

From the Oct. 26-Nov. 1, 2005, issue

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