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

September 03, 1989|RICK VANDERKNYFF

The idea of the mural is to depict family life as it exists now, without a huge road through the canyon, without yet another mega-development. The people and places and things in the pictures and the trees and fields surrounding "The Tell" are all part of the same environment, an environment that's threatened. If these projects go through, that environment changes, and at least some of it dies.

" 'The Tell' is one of the most poetic things I've ever experienced," says Eckmann. "All those little captured moments--I think it is absolute poetry."

"To me, it's really a reflection of the human spirit," Kube adds. "If we want to stop the corridor, stop Laguna Laurel, we need that spirit."

But whether the project has helped change the minds of developers and planners is another matter.

One answer of sorts came this week in the form of two environmental reports from the county planning department.

One calls for the transformation of Laguna Canyon Road north of El Toro Road from a meandering two-lane country road into a major arterial highway that would connect to the Transportation Corridor. The other would clear the way for most of the Laguna Laurel project. Residents have 45 days to comment on the reports before the projects go before county supervisors, who will approve or reject them.

Wayne Johnson, a county planner who worked on the reports, recommends that opponents keep pursuing the usual channels: writing letters, attending meetings and responding to the environmental impact reports. But, he said, symbolic gestures such as "The Tell" are hard to accommodate in the highly formalized planning process.

"Government can't respond to everything," Johnson said. "Government doesn't even know everything that's out there."

"Yes, we are aware of 'The Tell,' " said Donna Stubbs, public affairs manager for the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor Agency, whose members have met with co-organizer Chamberlain. "In a broad sense," she said, the concerns expressed in the installation "are certainly taken note of, I would say."

Aesthetics are accommodated in the planning process, she added, along with archeological, historical and wildlife concerns.

She said many of the claims made by canyon activists are untrue or misleading: The "800 foot" width mentioned on the city's sign reflects only one plan under consideration. The currently preferred alternative would be just half that--400 feet--at its widest point and would average about 180 feet--three lanes in each direction and a median with two reversible car-pool lanes and space for mass transit.

The Irvine Co., meanwhile, withheld comment on "The Tell" because, according to a spokesman, "none of the key people" on the Laguna Laurel project has seen the mural yet.

"It would please me to no end if (Irvine Co. chairman) Donald Bren would care to come here and sit down in this meadow and look at what people have done," Chamberlain says as he fiddles with an unlit cigarette. "Maybe I should send him an invitation."

Chamberlain, who directed "The Tell" with former BC Space Gallery partner Jerry Burchfield, is sitting on a bench at the far end of the photomural--636 feet from the road, to be exact--a straw hat shielding his eyes from the bright afternoon sun.

While he hopes those who hold the keys to the canyon's future--planners, landowners, politicians--will be moved by "The Tell" to heed its message, realistically he believes the project will have an indirect effect at best.

"It is a flag, if you will, something to rally around. . . . People have been thirsting for a direct way to express their feelings." The mural is due to be torn down at the end of this month, but Chamberlain hopes to persuade the city to let it stand until February, when insurance on the site runs out.

"The Tell" is the latest phase in the Laguna Canyon Project, an ongoing artistic and documentary exploration of the canyon that Chamberlain and Burchfield launched in 1980. At first, "The Tell" was conceived as a huge Cibachrome mural, but the specialized method of color photographic printing would have been enormously costly. The idea of using donated photos for the mural first was conceived as a way to save money.

"It turned out to be the absolute right way to do it," Chamberlain says. Instead of a private studio project, the project became a very public effort, "a town meeting disguised as a work of art" in the words of Times art critic Cathy Curtis. Thousands of people donated photographs; hundreds more helped paste the pictures to the plywood support structure.

Chamberlain says that many of the passers-by who stopped to peer at the snapshots told him they had never really thought about environmental and development issues in the canyon, which which he says refutes any argument that the project is preaching to the converted.

Many people today "almost think that if it's an open piece of ground, it must be developed," Chamberlain says. The main purpose of the "The Tell" is "to get people involved in the question" of how to shape the future of Laguna Canyon and, in a larger sense, involved in the issue of the human relationship to the land."

"It has been a very potent environmental statement," Chamberlain says. "If nothing else, we've succeeded in getting people 636 feet off that road. Some people have never done that before."

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