Christo's Artistic Hurdle in Colorado

PHOTO: AN artists rendition of what Christos proposed artwork might look like is shown.PlayABC
WATCH Christo's Artistic Hurdle in Colorado

In a winding river canyon just west of Cañon City, Colo., Christo has found his next canvas.

"You have all these tremendous, beautiful things," he says, gesturing at the towering canyon walls in front of him.

Without hesitating, the Bulgarian-born artist – now a spry 76-year-old -- begins descending the rocky banks of the Arkansas River, dotted with scrub brush and green pine trees.

"This is spectacular here," he says at the water's edge, over the sound of the roaring rapids.

He pulls out a small notebook and begins sketching the project that he's been working on for at least the last 20 years.

He calls it, "Over the River."

It's a massive art project in which Christo will suspend nearly six miles of translucent silvery fabric along a 42-mile stretch of the meandering river between the towns of Cañon City and Salida. Rafters will be able to float underneath the panels, and motorists above will be able to look down on Christo's work from U.S. Route 50, which runs parallel to the river.

The color of the panels will change as the sun moves across the sky, Christo says.

"In the morning light, the fabric begins almost pinkish," he says, in a heavy Bulgarian accent. "In the middle of the day, platinum. In the sunset, golden."

Like all the works of Christo and his collaborator -- his late wife Jeanne-Claude -- "Over the River" will be temporary, lasting only two weeks. Building it, however, will take two years.

That has residents like Dan Ainsworth taking a dim view of Christo's artistic vision. He's part of a group known as ROAR -- Rags Over the Arkansas River.

"It's going to be total disruption to the lives and livelihood of thousands of people," Ainsworth said.

ROAR fears that the massive and lengthy construction needed to build "Over the River" will choke the area's only two-lane canyon highway, blocking police and fire vehicles and deliveries to businesses. The 3,000 anchor points drilled into the canyon walls will mar the natural landscape, Ainsworth says. And the noise, they believe, will disrupt herds of bighorn sheep.

"It's basically an industrial assault to the canyon and the river," said Ainsworth.

ROAR -- with help from law students at the University of Denver -- is suing the federal Bureau of Land Management over their decision to grant Christo a permit to erect "Over the River."

The BLM is asking a judge to dismiss the lawsuit.

A final environmental impact statement released last summer by the BLM estimates that "Over the River" will generate $121 million in economic power and attract 400,000 visitors during construction and display.

If "Over the River" goes forward, however, fly fishing guide Carol Neville says her business will suffer.

"People come here to get away from traffic and construction and noise and pollution," Neville said. "And if they come up here and it's a construction zone, or they can't get to the area that's their favorite place to fish on this river, they're going to go somewhere else."

Controversy has followed Christo and Jeanne-Claude on nearly all of their collaborations, including their 1983 project to surround small islands near Miami in giant lily-pad-like pink sheets. In 2005, they erected more than 7,500 saffron-colored gates in New York's Central Park. And it took 24 years of arguing with German legislators before they finally were given permission to completely wrap fabric around the Reichstag parliament building.

Not everyone working and living near the "Over the River" site is against the project. Andy Neinas runs Echo Canyon River Expeditions and says the Arkansas is a perfect place for a Christo installation.

"No matter how many times I run it, it's still unique," Neinas says, paddling a raft down the river.

Neinas supports the project, partly because he knows Christo could help drive thousands of tourists to his rafts when "Over the River" is complete. He insists, however, that it's not all about money.

"How fortunate we are, in rural Colorado, to have a world-class opportunity to share the reason we live here, why we love this area, with the rest of the world," he said.

Christo has already spent two decades and ten million dollars on something that still lives only on paper. He pays for the project by selling his artwork and is quick to note that he receives no taxpayer money.

He hopes his crew can begin building "Over the River" this coming winter and have it ready for its two-week run in 2015.

"For years, our work is making people thinking," Christo said. "Bad, against the project, good, for the project. But people are thinking about art. A work of art that does not yet exist. Already, that is a great accomplishment."

The worst thing for an artist, Christo says, is to have their work ignored. That so many are arguing over the merits of "Over the River" he says, has already made it a success.