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By John Wenzel

Denver Post

DENVER - Over the River, a provocative public art project along 40 miles of the Arkansas River in southern Colorado, is very much alive, its co-creator made clear recently.

The artist Christo, best known for transforming places and things by draping them in colorful fabrics, visited Colorado in June to garner support for the project.

"We are always confident (in the project)," said Christo, 75. "We would never do this project if I was not."

The project is complex, requiring a lengthy environmental study and about half a dozen local, state and federal permits. It calls for suspending 5.9 miles of heavy, translucent fabric panels over the river, held down by anchors. The project is designed to be viewed for two weeks, from above - as motorists drive along U.S. 50 between Salida and Canon City - and below - as light filters through the silvery fabric to rafters on the river.

The idea remains controversial for those who fear a negative environmental impact.

"Christo's basically a con man and what he's good at is manipulating the permit process and getting people with money behind him," said Don Christenen, 68, a Salida resident since 1960 who fears traffic woes as a result of the project.

Christo insists none of his projects - such as the 7,500 orange-fabric gates along sidewalks in Central Park in 2005 - have left a trace.

The 17-year process of designing Over the River is far from over, and Christo has lately been through his share of trials. Jeanne-Claude, his wife and artistic partner of 51 years, died in November at age 74, and his legal team is always aggressively defending his art against commercial infractions - including a recent AT&T commercial that appears to use his orange-draped imagery without permission.

The ambitious Over the River project carries a high price tag, upwards of $51 million and climbing. Christo has already spent $7 million on research, all of it raised from the sale of his original artwork.

Conceived in 1985 and researched in the late 1990s, River's earliest possible completion date is 2013 - which includes the two-year installation (to potentially start next year) and months of deinstallation.