On a brilliant afternoon in August 2014, Christo and his entourage (personal assistants, lawyers, friends, videographers) are drifting down the Arkansas River near Cañon City in a flotilla of blue rubber rafts. Wedged into the bow of the lead craft, an orange crash helmet jammed over wild Einstein hair, Woody Allen eyeglasses leashed to his head, cheap leather work gloves protecting arthritic knuckles, the superstar Bulgarian-born “wrap” artist—who turns 80 this June—regards the fresh perspective of this alpine tributary of the Mississippi with childlike wonder. Gazing upward, instead of sky Christo sees miles of silvery translucent fabric suspended above the water, imagining how the panels will filter the sun and transform the light of day.
He calls it Over the River, a characteristically overambitious, landscape-altering temporary art installation that for two weeks one summer soon will lure thousands of art aficionados from across the globe to this dusty corner of Colorado high country. Or so Christo hopes.
“How did you come up with the idea?” asks Andy Neinas, owner of Echo Canyon River Adventures, working the oars of the raft.
Christo drifts back in time. It was 1985, and he and Jeanne-Claude were on a barge on the Seine, and rock climbers he had hired from Mount Eiger were dangling from the walls of the Pont Neuf, the oldest bridge in Paris, preparing to hoist the first of many fabric panels from the barge deck.
“Jeanne-Claude and myself are in the barge, and we are watching the fabric going up, up above the water of the River Seine,” recalls Christo. “At one point, everything stopped, and the fabric for quite a long time was suspended over the River Seine ... and Over the River was born.”
Sort of. After Christo and Jeanne-Claude wrapped the Pont Neuf, they planted 3,000 giant umbrellas in California and Japan, then they wrapped the Reichstag, before finally in 1996 they settled on a site for Over the River: a remote stretch of the Arkansas River snaking through 42 miles of BLM land between Salida and Cañon City—and started the permitting process. Two decades later, that process continues, but Over the River is now tantalizing close to being green-lighted, awaiting a final ruling from the Colorado Court of Appeals. (In January, the Federal District Court upheld the Bureau of Land Management’s approval.) With court approval, construction, which will take 27 months, will commence.
“We age,” Christo explained to an audience of ardent supporters at a luncheon in Cañon City before rafting the river. “A few weeks ago I became 79, and probably I will be an octogenarian by the time this project is realized.”
Data Points: Christo Edition
14,000 Estimated number of miles Christo and Jeanne-Claude traveled in Colorado before settling on a site for Over the River (OTR)
5.9 Miles of the Arkansas River the artist intends to cover with silvery fabric panels
300,000 Average number of paddlers who raft the Arkansas River each year
1 Rank of the Arkansas as America’s most-rafted river
1972 Date Christo unveiled his previous Colorado landscape-altering artwork, Valley Curtain
1,368 Length of the orange nylon curtain, in feet, that stretched across Garfield County’s Rifle Gap
365 Height of the curtain, in feet
800 Tons of concrete it took to anchor the curtain
28 Hours the curtain hung before it was ripped to shreds
14 Number of days Over the River will be on display before being removed
1,700 Number of pages in the BLM’s OTR environmental impact statement
400,000 Projected number of visitors who will travel to Cañon City to see the artwork
50 OTR’s projected construction cost, in millions of dollars
100 Percent of that cost Christo will cover via pre-sales of OTR-related artwork
121 Projected economic impact the project will have on Fremont County, in millions of dollars
18 Number of pages in June Colorado Supreme Court appeal filed by Rags Over the Arkansas River (motto: “Just Say No to Christo”), challenging state OTR approval
80 Christo’s age, as of June 13, 2015