Draping Over Nature’s Boundaries

An exploration of Christo’s controversial Over the River Project in Cañon City

by Joel Minor, staff writer; illustrations by Teal Francis, staff artist

Pop quiz. Why do cities in Northern Colorado have names like Longmont, Westminster, and Livermore, which sound like they could be in Connecticut or Surrey, but cities in Southern Colorado have names like Antonito, Buena Vista, and La Junta, which may as well be in Ecuador?

If you answered, “because until the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo of 1848, the Arkansas River was the boundary between the US and Mexico,” you would be correct.

The Arkansas River has long served as a boundary between the Hispanic cultures of what is now the American Southwest and the typically more Anglicized culture of the Great Plains. Like all boundaries, the one designated by the river can be blurred at times. But when it comes to place names, at least, it’s a pretty good bet that any town in Colorado with a Spanish name will be south of the Arkansas.

The name “Cañon City” challenges this boundary. Just as the city itself spans both banks of the Arkansas River, its name is neither Ciudad de los Cañones nor Canyon City. Even though many of its residents don’t speak a word of Spanish, they hang on to the tilde above the ‘n’ like a lifeline. It’s part of what makes the town of 16,000, located just 45 minutes southwest of Colorado Springs, unique.

The Anglo-Hispanic cultural divide isn’t the only boundary that Cañon City straddles. It also tests modern American political boundaries. On the surface,  seems to be a beacon of conservatism. According to the New York Times, Cañon City’s county of Fremont went 64 percent for John McCain in the 2008 presidential elections, and 59 percent for Republican senatorial candidate Ken Buck earlier this month. But underneath the dominant current of conservatism there is a thriving community of left-leaning outdoor recreation enthusiasts and artists drawn to Cañon City’s breathtaking beauty. The city straddles more than Hispanic and Anglo historical geographies—it is a bridge over the political divide.

Just as Cañon City blurs the lines between liberal and conservative, Democrat and Republican, it now finds itself confused over the line between art and nature. In 2000, world-renowned artists Christo and Jeanne-Claude proposed the Over the River Project. The duo is most famous for their massive fabric installations, which include building a series of gates in Central Park, wrapping an entire Caribbean island in fabric, and covering up the German parliament building. The Over the River project is projected to be on just as mammoth a scale. It would  drape a total of 5.2 miles of translucent silver fabric over the Arkansas River throughout the 42 mile stretch between Salida and Cañon City. The project is currently projected to be exhibited for two weeks in August of 2014.

Christo’s original plans slated the exhibition for as early as 2008, though complications have pushed construction further and further back, most recently moving the start date to 2014. The latest delay was not surprising. For one thing, Jeanne-Claude, one half of the husband-wife artistic duo, passed away in 2009. Christo is still hard at work, despite his wife’s death, but he is currently focusing on building a mastaba pyramid out of 410,000 oil barrels in the United Arab Emirates.

Christo’s busy schedule is certainly not the only factor delaying the project, however. A slew of engineering feasibility studies, environmental impact statements, and local concerns regarding the project’s impacts have also held up his work. In light of the most recent delay, I decided to head down to Cañon City to see what the locals had to say about the project. What were their objections? How many supported it? And why did Christo want to cover up the Arkansas in the first place?

I’ve driven into Cañon City more times that I can count. My dad grew up in La Junta, a little ways down the Arkansas, but all of his siblings ended up settling down in Cañon. Growing up, “Thanksgiving” was pretty much synonymous with “going down to Cañon.”

But on this drive, I tried to look at everything as a reporter investigating a new place. I was more conscious of the ubiquitous Ken Buck yard signs, and also of the wind scattering a hurricane of yellow cottonwood leaves on either side of the Arkansas. Years ago, some of them would have landed in Mexico, and some in the United States.

I decided to start my investigation at my uncle Gary Minor’s house. Along with another of my uncles, Gary owned, edited, and published the Cañon Current, an arts and entertainment focused newspaper (similar to the Colorado Springs Independent) for years. Thus he has known about the Over the River Project since its inception.

I caught up with Uncle Gary in his vegetable garden, where he was pulling up the last of the fall’s carrots and greens. He told me how he learned about the project: “When Christo and Jeanne-Claude came to Cañon City the first time, they ran into [local artist] Edward [Adamic]. He told them that we were from the local newspaper for arts and literature, so they arranged dinner just for [us]. It was really exciting, because we’d never heard of the project before that invite.”

Gary was quite impressed by Christo’s artistic skill, describing him as “the Picasso of our time.”

Although Christo’s fame and artistic talent made an impression on Gary, he understood some of the potential complaints against the project. “It’s hard to put your arms around it—it’s like going into a science lab and someone is doing stem cell research, and you don’t have an understanding of the larger picture. The people who don’t understand his artwork are going to be strongly opposed to it.” To Gary, though, the project was a powerful artistic statement about how tiny mankind is in comparison to nature—and a great way of putting Cañon City on the map.

Like many other Cañon City residents, Gary isn’t just in favor of the project because of its artistic merit. “It’s a great event for Fremont County to have. I predict, when it happens, and it will happen, if [Christo] lives long enough, there will be 300,000 people that will come and see it.  People from all over the world will come to see this piece of art, and to float down the river under it to witness the amazingness of it. The rafting companies will be totally booked up—there’ll be rafters in the river from daybreak to evening, maybe even at night, just to see it.”

Still, Gary acknowledged, “I see why people object—they don’t want to have a few hundred thousand people in their neighborhoods for two weeks.”

I decided that to really find out how Cañon City residents felt about the project, I would need to get out and talk to a few that weren’t directly related to me, which, given the nature of small towns, was a bit of a challenge. I ended up hanging out in front of Sonny’s Ace Hardware Home Center.

Of the first ten customers that had time to chat with me, three were in favor, and seven were opposed. It definitely wasn’t a statistically significant poll, but probably not too far off of accurate—although formal polling on local residents is hard to find.

Even non-residents are opinionated. In an online poll by the Colorado Springs Gazette Online, out of almost 500 respondents, 29 percent were in favor and 67 percent were against the project. The Denver CBS website also had an online poll asking readers, “A federal study says Christo’s ‘Over the River Project’ could have a large environmental impact. Do you think the project should go forward?” to which 79 percent responded “No, it’s time to let it go.”

All three of the positive responses to my informal poll gave different reasons. Chris Martin, a high school senior, was in favor simply because “I think it’s pretty cool and it’s pretty colorful.”

Another resident, Theresa Hamby, on the other hand, was more focused on the economic rather than the aesthetic benefit. “I’m very much in favor—I think it’s a resource. It’s good for the county, good for the state, and good for tourism.”

There was less disparity among the opposition. Most focused on the artistic value of the project, and how it would impact the natural beauty of the Arkansas Canyon. “I don’t like it,” said Marvin Mangham, “I’m against it 100 percent. I think it’s an egotistical claim by one man. I think the yuppies from California here in Cañon like it because it’s the yuppie thing to do.”

John Hanks agreed. “I don’t look at it as art. Hasn’t the guy got anything better to do with his money? There’s people suffering from diabetes and cancer in this world and he wants to spend his money to drape a sheet of plastic over the river?”

By far the most common sentiment was questioning whether the project would increase the Arkansas’ existing natural beauty. “I think it’s rotten,” said Muriel Clark. “He’s ruining a perfectly good canyon.”

Rick Ratzloff echoed her sentiment. “I don’t think we should do it. It’s a waste of money and it’s pretty enough driving through there now. You see all the bighorns and all that. Nature’s great.”

Ray Quick put it the most simply. “I think it’s unnecessary. I don’t think it adds to the environment.”

The main issue of contention appeared to be whether the Project would enhance or degrade the value of the environment. My uncle seemed to think Over the River had something to give. “You know there’s going to be an enormous amount of pressure to hold that fabric in place,” he said. “That’s part of the art—standing up to the elements. It’s fantastic. It has the element of chance. No one knows what will happen to the curtains when they’re in the canyon . . . the whole thing of its ripping, that’s the whole statement. We’re specks on the earth.”

I was less sure. Maybe my CC education has pushed me too hard to only see the science in the environment, but I have a hard time believing that an installation of artificial fabric could add to the “natural” beauty of one of the most awe-inspiring places on earth. Art definitely has its place, and I was happy that Cañon City might make a dollar or two out of the project. But isn’t the river between Salida and Cañon City a piece of a bigger ecological puzzle? As a man partial to science, it seems the river functions as a drain for snow melt from the Sangre de Cristos, and not as an art gallery or a cash register for the surrounding human community. To work through the challenge, I went to have a chat with CC professor Marion Hourdequin, who teaches Environmental Ethics, among other classes, and who has spent much more time than I have thinking about what constitutes “naturalness.”

Like most philosophers, Hourdequin was quick to point out that the boundary between the natural and the unnatural is at best blurry, if it even exists at all. “Traditionally, people have thought of ‘natural’ as that which is uninfluenced or unmanipulated by human beings, but it doesn’t take a philosopher to make the point that there aren’t many places that haven’t been influenced by human beings,” Hourdequin said.

“I see naturalness as a continuum,” she continued. “There are a lot of rivers that are relatively natural, but being completely unmanipulated by human beings is relatively uncommon in the American West. Still, [Monument] Creek is a lot less wild than a stretch of the Yampa River.” That made sense to me. But how would the Over the River Project affect the naturalness of the Arkansas, in particular?

Hourdequin’s answer, more than everything else, helped me to understand why Christo would want to create the project in the first place. “The message of pieces of art in general, and this piece of art in particular, is ambiguous and open ended. It depends on how people interact with it,” she replied. “That is not fully controlled by the artist and not fully predictable. It may have long term impacts about how we think of the Arkansas River and our perceptions of how humans interact with the environment.”

Perhaps, then, the boundary between my uncle’s excitement about the piece and the skepticism I encountered in the Ace Hardware parking lot is less clear than I had thought. Most in Cañon built their opinions on a vision of civilization and nature that keeps the two ideas separate and exclusive. But Over the River would be neither just about man-made art nor just about draping over natural beauty—it would emphasize the relationship between man and the environment.

The more I talked to Hourdequin, the more my initial skepticism about the value of the project began to waver. “I think the natural world is beautiful as is,” she said. “I don’t know if that means we shouldn’t do art. [The Project] might add a different sort of aesthetic value—it might complement the natural aesthetic value in different ways. Might it also mar or obscure it? That also seems possible to me.”

If nothing else, the Over the River Project has called a great deal of attention to the Arkansas River, to Cañon City, and to the interaction between art and nature. As Hourdequin explained, “In [consciously blending art and nature], it creates conversation about the interaction of the natural and the anthropogenic, and I think those conversations are valuable. We live in a landscape that typically blurs the distinction between the artefact and the natural. To the extent that this Project promotes more explicit discussion of these questions, it’s a good thing.”

Driving away from Cañon City, I started looking at the area around me from a different perspective. The highway going back to the Springs snakes through the rugged foothills of Cheyenne Mountain. Typically, I focus on the massive groves of ponderosa pines and the deep-pink sandstone outcroppings, never ceasing to be awed by the combination of geologic and ecological factors that created each unique hill and forest. But this time, I couldn’t help but notice the road, the telephone lines, the scattered ranch houses and the fields of dying grasses and forlorn cattle. None of them had shimmering fabric draped over them. But maybe I would have noticed them years ago if they had.

Draping Over Nature\’s Boundaries (PDF)

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