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'Rags' and riches 

He's been called arrogant, passé. His work, preposterous. One Independent letter-writer suggested he just piss into the gorge he envisions as the site for his next art installation.

Unlike most artists, Christo stokes the fires of opinion before the work is even constructed.

"The project exists only in drawings, in sketches, the mind of a thousand people who try to stop me and in the mind of a thousand people who try to help me," Christo said at an interview with the Indy in late July.

Tentatively planned for a two-week exhibition period in August 2013, "Over the River" would bring a silvery canopy, installed in segments, to 5.9 miles of the Arkansas River between Salida and Cañon City. It would be funded by Christo and his late wife and partner Jeanne-Claude, who already paid for a $2 million Draft Environmental Impact Statement by the independent group EDAW/AECOM for the Bureau of Land Management to review. The DEIS is a 1,400-page document listing issues ranging from traffic stopped by temporarily displaced bighorn sheep to the consequences of vibration from constructing the anchors.

The BLM is also collecting comments from locals and others to help complete the final EIS in February. In April, a Record of Decision — a yes or no — will be announced.

River runs through it

"Over the River" began with the "Pont Neuf Wrapped" in Paris, completed back in 1985. As fabric was boated out to the bridge for wrapping, the artists marveled at the way it rippled over the water.

As time went on, they settled on doing a river-related project in the U.S., specifically in the Rocky Mountains — since most American rivers are "born in the Rockies," says Christo.

In August of 1992, 1993 and 1994, the artists scouted locations, eventually narrowing 89 rivers down to the Arkansas, where it runs parallel to State Highway 50 in a gorge. Some reasons were related to construction and engineering. But Christo liked that audiences could view the project from above, via the road and a footpath, and from below, on rafts underneath the canopy.

This portion of the Arkansas possesses another unique characteristic: It flows west to east, not north to south. If "Over the River" succeeds, the arc of the sun will illuminate the pulverized aluminum fabric differently throughout the day. "In the morning, you have a rosy pink, in the afternoon it is platinum ... and the late afternoon, it becomes golden with the sunset," says Christo, who adds that from underneath, the fabric is slightly transparent, allowing viewers to see the "contour of the mountains."

As with their other endeavors, Christo and Jeanne-Claude pushed through years of meetings, proposals, permission inquests and red tape. They requested the EIS, even though they regret that it can't measure the value of a work of art. (An EIS is normally used for construction of permanent structures, such as airports and highways.) It was important, Christo says, to be sensitive of the area.

He also enjoys the historic aspect of the report: "Imagine, a $2 million study for the work of art [that] physically does not exist!"

ROAR against the machine

Cass Cairns, public affairs officer for the BLM's Royal Gorge office, says comments so far are mixed. (EDAW/AECOM also will do a formal comment analysis.) The BLM had received about 1,500 as of last week, and expects many more now that several parties succeeded in extending the comment period to Sept. 14.

One such group is ROAR, an acronym for Rags Over the Arkansas River. The Cañon City-based initiative is run entirely by volunteers who seek to stop "Over the River." Cathey Young, a founder and board member, says the group has myriad reasons, backed up by data, to dislike the project. For instance, they feel emergency response times will be heavily compromised. Other concerns involve wildlife, economics, fishing and traffic. (See more at roarcolorado.org, and the artists' reassurances at overtheriverinfo.com.)

If the BLM approves the plan, Young says ROAR will protest at the state level, or even the federal level.

But ROAR faces stiff political competition. "Over the River" has garnered support from Democratic gubernatorial candidate John Hickenlooper, U.S. Sens. Michael Bennet and Mark Udall, and U.S. Rep. John Salazar. In Cañon City, mayor Tony Greer, the City Council and the Chamber of Commerce support it.

A firm hired by the artists estimates that "Over the River" will generate more than $121 million in revenue for the state, as well as 300 and 400 temporary jobs — with preference given to area workers.

Passions among supporters and detractors are running high, leaving Cairns to issue a firm reminder to fence-sitters: The DEIS is the only source for impartial information about environmental impacts. Other sites offering summaries aren't reliable.

Is there any talk of compromise out there? Well, yes and no. BLM Royal Gorge field manager Keith Berger theoretically could approve one of the many project alternatives outlined in the DEIS. But Christo says he and his team will only accept their original concept.

The artist is unwavering in his vision — even though he realizes that his vision won't perfectly mirror reality.

"There is no way to substitute the real thing," says Christo. "My drawings, the sketches, the scale models, cannot substitute the dynamics. They are not static things, they are totally sensual, fluid things, unpredictable."

edie@csindy.com

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