In a repurposed garage in Denver’s trendy Lower Downtown neighborhood, the artist Christo stepped up onto the makeshift stage. Across the street in the museum of contemporary art hung sketches from his latest proposed project, Over the River, an ambitious – and highly controversial – work that, if approved, would suspend industrial-strength fabric over Colorado’s Arkansas River.
The plan is loved by some and despised by others, but among this crowd of art enthusiasts, Christo, with his mane of untamed silver hair and a rumpled khaki vest and jeans, received a standing ovation before his first slide wheeled around on the carousel projector.
“This is a love fest,” muttered Lewis Tom, of Denver, one of the few naysayers in the crowd.
A fly fisherman, Tom worries about the impact of the project on the fishing around the town of Salida, a popular spot for anglers as well as kayakers and rafters. “I won’t be sad if it doesn’t happen,” he said.
At the MCA Denver, the sketches and photos of a secret life-size model erected near the Utah elicited audible wows. It’s far from a sure thing, though. Because almost all of the project would be on public land, Over the River is subject to an intense environmental review by the Bureau of Land Management. A draft environmental impact statement released in July resulted in more than 4,500 public comments, many voicing concerns about the project’s possible impact on wildlife, the environment and on the region’s fishing guides, a mainstay of the economy.
For supporters, the project speaks for itself.
“It’s like an homage to nature in a way,” said Judi Strahota, a Boulder artist. “He’s framing the most spectacular thing that Colorado offers: the beautiful waters. He’s putting a framework around it so we can see it in a different way, and the fact that it’s only temporal is appealing.”
Controversy follows Christo’s projects, many of which take years to be approved. In that sense, Over the River is already under way. “We have hundreds of thousands of people discussing something that doesn’t exist,” said Christo, in a heavy accent from his native Bulgaria. “That is an essential part of this project.”
Temporary by design, his work transforms a space while in place, then disappears. His last project erected 7,503 metal gates suspending saffron fabric in serpentine rows through New York’s Central Park. He has wrapped the Reichstag in Berlin in white, dressed 11 islands in Miami’s Biscayne Bay in pink, lined 3,100 umbrellas along coasts in California and Japan and in 1972 hung an orange curtain across Rifle Gap in western Colorado. That project took 28 months to complete and came down within 28 hours due to high winds.
“I don’t know if anyone recognizes how lucky we are to have you back in Colorado again,” Jennifer Garner, director of the Center for Visual Art at Denver’s Metro State College, told him.
In Over the River, Christo plans to drape 5.9 miles of fabric in eight segments along a 42-mile stretch of water between Salida and Cañon City, through a canyon flanked by a railroad and highway and heavily-used by rafters.
Suspended at least 8 feet above the surface, the panels are meant to be seen from above, as silvery curtains billowing over the river, and from below, where rafters can look up to see sky, clouds and mountains through the translucent fabric.
While the work would take about two years to install, it would hang for only two weeks in what Christo now says will be August 2014, one year later than he had hoped. Then, the fabric and the steel cables holding them in place would be removed and, he says, the landscape will be restored.
Opponents are skeptical. Now that a draft EIS is out, and a final report is due in February, opinions are flying. Fishing guides worry months of construction could leave them out of business in the spring, when caddis flies are hatching, and that no-entry zones will elbow them out of prime spots after the project is in place. Along the river, “Just say NO to Christo” billboards have sprung up. A group, Rags Over the Arkansas River, or ROAR, has formed to oppose it.
Environmentalists are weighing in, too. In its comments to the BLM, Colorado Trout Unlimited voiced concerns about 9,100 boreholes that would be put in the riverbank to anchor the cables. The group also worried about the possibility of fuel or chemical spills and the risk of a “catastrophic failure” of the project.
“Long-lasting scars can remain in watersheds even after reclamation work is completed,” wrote Colorado Trout Unlimited Executive Director David Nickum.
Other environmentalists have raised alarms about possible impacts to bighorn sheep, birds and other wildlife. Seven groups that banded together against it labeled it an “industrial-scale facility.” Others have stayed out of the fray. The Sierra Club’s Sangre de Cristo chapter voted to support it.
Christo’s team insists wildlife won’t be harmed and says it will work to avoid impacting wildlife, suspending work during lambing time for sheep and nesting time for eagles. And team members say they will refill any holes left behind.
“We’re the cleanest artists in the world,” Christo said. “We have not a single thing remaining from our projects.”
He points to an economic boon that could come to the area. A BLM economic analysis found the project could bring in $121 million and create some 600 temporary jobs.
“If it goes up, I’m definitely going to raft it,” said Bob Ridgeway, a Denver rafter. But Ridgeway said he’s divided on the project. On the one hand, he worries about environmental impacts. On the other, he sees the economic potential and the artistic value.
“It’s gonna be cool,” he said.
Christo and his wife and collaborator Jeanne-Claude started planning Over the River in 1992, when they began logging 15,000 miles driving through the West scoping sites. They narrowed 89 rivers to six possible sites from Idaho to Colorado.
“Most of the great rivers in the United States are born in the Rocky Mountains,” he said.
Although Jeanne-Claude died a year ago, her name remains on the project, and she remains a presence in his presentation. “We loved to say we’re twins,” said Christo, who was born on the same day as his wife in 1935.
They’ve been at work obtaining permits since 1997. “Like all our projects, the most difficult part is to get permission,” Christo said. The BLM has put out a range of alternatives. Christo hopes the agency will give him the blessing for his full project. In the meantime, at least one of his wishes has come true.
“Hate it or like it is irrelevant,” he said. “(An artist) wants his project to be discussed. This is the essential part.”