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 tantalizingly 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.”
Jewelry designer Dan Telleen was a young man of 28 in 1972, an elementary-school art teacher newly relocated from Michigan, when he and a group fellow Vail Village artists road-tripped to Rifle to witness the unfurling of Christo’s debut Colorado installation, Valley Curtain, a quarter-mile-long orange nylon polyamide drape across Garfield County’s Rifle Gap. He still remembers the sound it made the moment the curtain was released.
“It sounded like a freight train,” says Telleen, proprietor of Karats Vail, a working studio and gallery. “It went Rrrrr, and then it stopped.”
As the problem was trouble-shot, some of the crew left, and Telleen and friends were hired as replacements, earning minimum wage. They were manning anchor stations the next day, when a steeplejack dangling from a cable 185 feet in the air cut the fouled line with a pocketknife and the curtain dropped to the canyon floor, shrouding the valley, billowing for 28 hours before the wind tore it to shreds.
“Everybody was celebrating; there was Champagne; people put Christo on their shoulders and threw him into the creek,” laughs Telleen. “In Rifle, people weren’t talking about football games and hunting and farming, they were talking about art. They might say, ‘That ain’t art to me!’ but people were talking about what art was, and they were learning. As a schoolteacher, I thought that was great.”
So much so, he befriended Christo and Jeanne-Claude and has worked on almost every domestic project of theirs ever since, including Running Fence (a 25-mile-long fabric fence in Sonoma and Marin counties; security guard), Wrapped Walk Ways (a draped footpath in a Kansas City park; chauffeur), and The Umbrellas (tour guide). At his West Vail condo, Telleen maintains a veritable Christo museum: a collection of bumper stickers, T-shirts, fabric swatches, blueprints, letters, check stubs, and other mementos. Telleen has been a guest at Christo’s SoHo loft and studio and attended Jeanne-Claude’s 2009 funeral at the Metropolitan Museum of Art; in turn, Christo has visited Telleen at Karats and has dined with him at La Tour. Telleen, for one, can’t wait to get back to work on Over the River—he’s already helped with the prototype.
“It’s probably the same feeling that soldiers have when they get together 50 years after a war: that camaraderie, working on something that’s bigger than yourself,” he says, fingering a swatch of Valley Curtain canvas. “I don’t know if Over the River is his last project, but it has come full circle for me.”
Editor's Note/Update (June 3, 2020): On January 25, 2017, Christo announced that he was canceling Over the River, issuing the following statement online, "After pursuing Over The River, Project for the Arkansas River, State of Colorado, for 20 years and going through five years of legal arguments, I no longer wish to wait on the outcome.” On May 31, 2020, Christo died in his home in New York City; he was 84. His final work, L'Arc de Triomphe, Wrapped, is scheduled to open for public viewing in Paris from Sept. 18 - Oct. 3, 2021.