Little Bay was wrapped with 90,000 square metres of fabric.Credit:Ellen Waugh

When US artist Christo announced 50 years ago that he intended to “wrap” vast areas of the Sydney coastline in his now-famous installation Wrapped Coast, reaction from the press and general public ranged from bewildered amusement to downright hostility.

But art teacher Ellen Waugh has never been one to follow the crowd so she drove from her Coogee home to the Little Bay site earmarked by Christo to see for herself what the fuss was about.

“People complained that he would ruin the coastline so I thought I’d go out and see what the coast is like that they are ‘ruining’,” says Waugh, now a sprightly and impish 95.

“And I found out rubbish was being dumped there. I think even the council was dumping stuff as well as local people and I thought what are these people talking about – they’re talking through their hats.”

From that point Waugh was a huge supporter of Christo’s unusual proposal, which was to become the first public art project sponsored by philanthropist John Kaldor.

“People here in Australia were tripping off to Europe and here was somebody coming and choosing Australia to do a really original piece of work … and using the Australian landscape to provide an art that belonged in Australia. It was a terrific opportunity.”

There was little attention paid to safety on the site.Credit:Ellen Waugh

Waugh’s recollections are included in a new Kaldor project called Living Archives, that invites people to submit their own recollections of Wrapped Coast and the 33 projects that came after it since 1969. The project is part of a series of events to celebrate 50 years of Kaldor projects that will include a major exhibition opening at the Art Gallery of NSW in September.

The material she souvenired remains a prized possession for Ellen.Credit:James Alcock

She made regular trips to watch work proceed on the massive project. Safety precautions on the site were mostly non-existent as volunteers swarmed over the rocks laying out and lashing down the 90,000 square metres of synthetic woven fabric.

“I was there when one of the people fell,” she recalls. “Luckily, he was able to grab enough of the fabric as he fell so that when he hit the bottom he didn't hit it solidly. Everybody stopped work when he tumbled down but then to everybody’s relief he shouted ‘No, I’m alright’, and he got up.”

Waugh also took along her camera to document progress, and produced a series of colour slides. They are among the very few colour images of Wrapped Coast that exist and have never before been published.

When the project was finished she secured her own souvenir of the remarkable event – several metres of the fabric and orange rope used by Christo.

Half a century later the materials remain a prized possession.

Waugh has no doubt about the significance of the event that left so many Sydneysiders initially scratching their heads.

“Christo wasn’t ruining a coastline, he was showing the sculptural possibilities of a coastline,” she says. “There’s so much potential in art and people are free to do anything now.”

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