Over the river with Jeanne-Claude and Christo
Envisioning the Arkansas River public art porject

by Jules Masterjohn

When I ran into my art friend Kate early one Saturday morning, I had no idea that the meeting would lead to a 24-hour, 400-mile road trip to Salida and back. This kind of spontaneity is foreign to me within my regimented, multiple-job life. However, her bubbling excitement about the Salida appearance of internationally renowned artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude the following Monday evening was all that was needed to convince me to shake loose from some responsibilities. By midday on Monday, we were happily stopped in the construction zone on Wolf Creek Pass, exchanging stories about our previous Christo and Jeanne-Claude project experiences.

If you have ever had the privilege of being in the presence of one of their temporary outdoor installations, as both Kate and I have, you know it is unforgettable. It is hard not to feel passionate about their monumental works, which, in addition to being deeply moving and magical to behold, have inspired both of us to see and experience the landscape in ways previously unimagined.

The reason for the visit by Christo and Jeanne-Claude was dual purposed: to offer a public presentation, reacquainting the community with the duo’s proposed project, “Over the River,” planned for the Arkansas River; and to kick off an auction of signed reproductions of their work to benefit the Steam Plant Theater, Salida’s newly renovated performing and visual arts venue.

Seated with the few hundred who were fortunate enough to get tickets (we were granted press passes), the sold-out Steam Plant Theater was abuzz as we awaited the guests’ arrival. Orange clothing and accessories, in tribute to the team’s most recent project, the saffron “Gates in New York City,” could be seen dotted throughout the audience. Welcomed by a standing ovation, Jeanne-Claude introduced herself and Christo, pointing out the destiny of their partnership by revealing that she and Christo were born on the same day within hours of each other. Christo then began the presentation, speaking in his thick Bulgarian/French accent, generously tolerating Jeanne-Claude’s occasional promptings on his English word choices. The two, married and collaborating artistically for more than 40 years, have a gentle way of interjecting during each other’s commentary, provoking titers from the audience.

Jeanne-Claude poetically spoke of the inspirational moment back in 1985 that led to “Over the River,” which began as a silent, sparkling glance between the two as they stood beneath their wrapped project on the Pont Neuf, a historic bridge in Paris. At that moment, without words, an agreement was made to create a work in which the interplay of light and water would become a central element for a future project. To realize this 20-year vision, they traveled 15,000 miles over three summers during the mid-90s, “auditioning” 89 river sites. They settled, finally, on a 40-mile east-west stretch of the Arkansas River. The latitudinal orientation offers significantly long exposure to the sun’s path, a primary factor in choosing this segment for their project. Occasionally during Jeanne-Claude’s description, Christo’s face would flash with a most delighted expression, like the glance I imagined they had shared 20 years earlier, when the spark of inspiration flitted between them. In his facial gesture, it seemed as if he was “seeing” into the future and visualizing a completed “Over the River” project, a testament to his highly developed powers of visualization.

World renowned artists Christo, left, and Jeanne-Claude, right, along with Jonita Davenport, are caught in a candid moment during their presentation of “Over the River” at the Steam Plant Theater in Salida on Aug. 1./Photo by Jules Masterjohn

This ability to envision a finished installation is only one aspect in the success of their work: determination, patience and flexibility are other qualities. As with each of their complicated and multifaceted projects, “Over the River” has many hurdles to jump before the seven miles of translucent, industrial-strength fabric panels can be suspended like a see-through ceiling many feet above the Arkansas.

Vince Davenport, the director of construction and engineering for the project explained that the environmental assessment review is about one year from completion, in which 11 Colorado state and local agencies must give their approvals before the necessary permits can be granted. This interfacing with governmental agencies and local residents is all part of what Christo considers the art-making process critical to their 21st century medium.

It is a daunting process. Yet, Christo and Jeanne-Claude are art warriors in the truest sense, hearing the challenges presented by their opponents with respect. When a group of locals critical of the project brought up concerns about emergency vehicles and traffic congestion along the only road between Salida and Cañon City, Davenport offered a plan for medical helicopters and personnel to be standing by in each town during the project’s two-week installation. The cost for the emergency plan is factored into the project’s budget, which is financed solely by the artists through the sale of Christo’s preparatory drawings, collages, lithographs and earlier works.

For the artists, the stakes are high, both creatively and financially. As Jeanne-Claude stated when asked what the project will cost, “I will answer the question the way I always do: It will cost everything we have and everything we can borrow.” Christo added that they could buy a fleet of Mercedes’ or own a chateau in Switzerland, but they are artists who believe in art and choose to make and spend their money realizing their visions.

After nearly 35 years of presenting their installations to the public, generously free of charge, and at 70 years old, this could be the creative team’s last monumental artwork. The earliest that the project will be installed is in July/August of 2008. So book your hotel reservations now … no doubt thousands will travel from around the world to experience this most grand artwork shimmering over the river.

For project updates on “Over the River,” consult www.christojeanneclaude.net.

A rendering of the “Over the River” project planned for the Arkansas River.



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