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Creating a Stir : Artist, City Clash Over Colorful Expression of Protest

November 17, 1994|LESLIE EARNEST | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

LAGUNA BEACH — To some observers, the colorful swirl of flowers, branches and berries that Joe Mangrum has created on Main Beach here is, well, just a colorful swirl of flowers, branches and berries.

But to Mangrum, his piece of "public art"--which he meticulously assembles by day only to have city cleaning crews sweep away by night--has come to symbolize the struggle of creativity against rigid bureaucracy.

The artwork in question was conceived as Mangrum's pro-environmental protest against construction of the San Joaquin Hills toll road through the gentle Laguna Canyon, a project that has inflamed emotions in this coastal community.

Now, his pique has been redirected toward the city, which informed him Wednesday that he must obtain a permit and a $1-million liability insurance policy to keep his artwork at Main Beach.

Officials also told him he'd have to move his nine-foot circle of nature from its grassy perch to a nearby cobblestone area designated for displays that reflect free expression.

"I just think it's a ridiculous idea to have to have insurance to politically protest," he said Wednesday as pigeons pecked at his masterpiece. "I think this city's gotten a little too expensive for artists."

And yet, there is a certain spiritual benefit to his suffering: "I think the more the city destroys it, the stronger the piece becomes."

From the city's perspective, this isn't so much about art as keeping city parks and beaches tidy.

"Even if it was a Van Gogh painting, our Municipal Services (Department) people would pick up that painting and remove it from the beach," recreation director Pat Barry said. "He wants to leave something there overnight and have me guarantee it will be there the next morning. I simply cannot do that."

The saga began last week when Mangrum, a traveling "environmental artist," began collecting twigs, kumquats, feathers and other bits of nature that caught his eye.

Over the weekend, he fitted the pieces together on the highly visible patch of grass at Main Beach, a city-owned park.

When he returned Monday morning to again behold his creation, it was gone, cleared away by city groundskeepers.

Undaunted, he set to work again, and by Tuesday morning, the area was again wiped clean.

Now, after investing 100 hours into his project, he was fed up.

"I've been having to run out and collect stuff every day because they demolish everything I do," he said.

Mangrum, 25, complained to the City Council on Tuesday night and was encouraged to talk to Barry.

However, the two did not share a meeting of the minds.

"What he is doing to him may be a piece of art," Barry said Wednesday. "But it was no different than you or me leaving a beach chair or a backpack in the park and having the expectation that when we come back tomorrow it would still be sitting there."

Barry suggested that Mangrum keep re-creating his artwork at the beach each day or get an outdoor exhibit permit and display his piece at the Irvine Bowl, as city law provides.

Or, he could find a sympathetic property owner willing to display the art on private land, Barry said.

But Mangrum, who said he has a bachelor of fine arts degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, said his art is "very site specific" and belongs where it is.

Those who gathered Wednesday to gaze upon Mangrum's palette of blossoms, branches, sand and sea shells seemed to approve.

"I think it's really sharp, Laguna Beach resident Jim Hohn said. "I think they should probably just leave him alone and let him do it. I don't think it hurts anything."

"A grass-roots art movement needs room to grow in Laguna, exactly as the young man said," said Loraine Hollingsworth, an artist who has lived in the city since 1942. "Commercialization--I think of it as a castration of artistic expression."

Mangrum intended to spend the day standing guard over his creation.

"I don't see how anybody could get a sort of negative vibe off of this," he said.

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