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Art Attack : Laguna Beach Keeps Clearing Away Collage of Nature

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 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 protest against construction of the San Joaquin Hills tollway through 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 would have to move his nine-foot circle of nature from its grassy perch to a nearby cobblestone area designated for displays of 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.

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.

After investing 100 hours in his project, he was fed up.

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.

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.

But Mangrum, who said he has a bachelor's degree from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, said his art is "very site specific."

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."

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