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Artists 'Tell' All to Save Laguna Canyon : Activists Frame Their Preservation Message Within Photomural

September 03, 1989|RICK VANDERKNYFF

You're a natural beauty Meant to be free Pretty as a picture You're my canyon to the sea. --Jim Rushing, "Natural Beauty" Jim Rushing is a leather worker by trade, selling his handmade shoes, belts and bags out of the small shop in Laguna Beach that he runs with his wife, Linda. But he also fancies himself a songwriter and has been composing tunes for about 20 years.

Last year, Rushing put his thoughts on the Laguna Canyon and other environmental concerns to music. He handed the compositions to his friend Mark Kenoly, who went into a studio and came out with a tape of the songs in slick pop and jazz arrangements.

Since June, Rushing has been selling copies of the tape, "Great Things," at special events and through Laguna Beach music shops. They are stamped with "Save the Canyon" stickers and generally are displayed alongside brochures for the Laguna Canyon Conservancy, an activist group that is working to block several planned developments in the canyon. So far, about 300 tapes have sold at $10 each. Half the proceeds go to the conservancy.

"I just tried to express the beauty of the canyon," says Rushing, who has become a director of the conservancy, coordinating much of its merchandising effort. "It was very easy to write the lyrics."

Other artists and craftsmen in Laguna Beach, which has long lived off its reputation as an artists' colony, have joined in aiding the canyon preservation effort. Some have donated proceeds from artworks, some have donated T-shirt and greeting card designs, and musicians have performed for free at public gatherings. Others have put their brushes aside to do the all-important political work: organizing, reading environmental impact reports, writing letters.

Even the beach city's popular summer art festivals have gotten into the act. The Sawdust Festival donated booth space to the conservancy this summer, while the Laguna Festival of Arts gave $10,000 to help underwrite "The Tell," a giant photomural that stretches along a portion of Laguna Canyon Road, providing a rallying point for canyon activists.

"Art is a very powerful tool of discovery," Rushing says. "We actually have very few other tools at our disposal."

"The Tell" sits at a point where the proposed San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor, a 14-mile tollway linking Newport Beach and San Juan Capistrano, would cross Laguna Canyon Road. A sign, funded by the city of Laguna Beach, informs travelers that the tollway would be 800 feet wide and more than 40 feet high at the site.

Around a bend is the site of the proposed Laguna Laurel project, where the Irvine Co. hopes to build more than 3,000 homes, 82 acres of commercial development and a 276-acre private golf course. Right now, there are no homes or businesses in the canyon's largely pristine upper end.

Many area residents want to keep it that way. Laguna Laurel and the transportation corridor are two main targets of the conservancy, a relatively new and political offshoot of the long-established Laguna Greenbelt Inc. With "The Tell," where the conservancy maintains an information booth, activists have been able to draw people to the site and to explain their side of the story.

"People will come out to 'The Tell' because they're curious," says Linda Eckmann, a conservancy director in charge of membership. When passers-by are told of the development plans, Eckmann says, "their mouths drop open."

"We've picked up, I think, a lot of people that way. . . . If we get 10 more people going to a meeting, that's fantastic. If we get 10 more letters being written, that's fantastic too."

Attendance at the mural grows and ebbs. During the summer art festival season, which ended Sunday, sometimes as many as 100 would gather there late in the afternoon as they made their way home. At other times, even during free concerts, it's been almost deserted. But Mark Chamberlain, a co-organizer of the project, guesses that the number of people who have visited so far has been in the thousands.

"The Tell" has further helped spread the group's message via newspaper and magazine coverage.

"We don't have a public relations budget, so we can't advertise," says Ken Kube, a conservancy volunteer. But the project--a plywood backdrop shaped to correspond to the surrounding hills, plastered with donated family snapshots--has been given national exposure in Life magazine and has been the focus of dozens of local articles.

The Guiness Book of World Records has promised to check a claim that "The Tell" is the world's largest photomural. And with every mention, Kube notes, "we get our story out."

"I don't think it's a protest piece," says Chamberlain. "It's a very positive piece. . . . This is about people having fun."

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