DENVER — Eighteen years after Christo and his late wife envisioned hanging huge fabric panels over the Arkansas River, the artist said Thursday he's not going to think about his next step if federal regulators don't support the idea.
Christo and Jeanne-Claude first sketched an early version of "Over the River" in 1992. The project would suspend a total of 5.9 miles of fabric from anchors and cables in eight spots along a 42-mile stretch of the river for two weeks. The earliest it could happen is 2013.
The Bureau of Land Management, which must issue a permit for the project along U.S. 50, held meetings this week in Canon City, Salida, Cotopaxi and Denver for the public to comment on its draft environmental impact statement on the project.
The BLM has offered possible alternate versions that would shrink it, reduce the amount of silvery, translucent fabric used, adjust the timing, or make other changes. But Bulgarian-born Christo, now based in New York, insists that only the alternative that leaves his proposal intact honors his artistic vision.
"It's like a musical symphony, with an andante, allegro and all the rest," he said Thursday. He and his team wouldn't discuss their options if the BLM only allows a shrunken version.
Critics say "Over the River" could ruin traffic, tourism, fishing and wildlife habitat between Canon City and Salida.
Retiree Jerry Hornbuckle of Leadville, for one, says some of the heavy equipment the artist plans to use to erect the project is so wide that U.S. 50 would have to completely close for hours at a time in chunks of time spread out over about two years.
"That closure of highway for as long as they need to do it will put most small businesses between Salida and Canon City out of business," Hornbuckle said in an interview earlier this summer. "I don't want to see those businesses harmed because some idiot artist from Bulgaria has a super ego."
Christo's team counters that there are many misconceptions about the project and that they have carefully considered mitigation efforts.
Project spokesman Steve Coffin said Christo's team is committed to never closing both directions of traffic, and project director Jonita Davenport said the team didn't list every piece of equipment they would use.
At public meetings this week, one person commented that allowing "Over the River" was like pornography in a church or swastikas in a synagogue, his team said.
"Nobody discusses the painting before it is painted," Christo said. "Imagine an artist who his work is (argued), articulated and discussed by so many people before it exists. It's an incredible pleasure to see art create so much energy, thinking."
Christo and Jeanne-Claude's ideas have hit resistance before.
"The Gates" in New York's Central Park was rejected by three city administrations before a friend was elected as mayor. The 7,503 fabric panels of "The Gates" were installed in 2005 under the tenure of the friend: Mayor Michael Bloomberg. Christo called it sheer luck.
What happens with "Over the River" remains to be seen.
"Artists have the unstoppable urge to fill the canvas with color. This project is the same thing. If other people like it, it's a bonus," Christo said.