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Water colors

Hard feelings spill over 'Drain,' a mural depicting the Owens Valley.

November 22, 2005|Leslie Carlson

THE battle cry of modern art has been: Shock the bourgeoisie (epater le bourgeois). In the eastern Sierra town of Bishop, a twist on the old imperative has arisen: Shock the bureaucracy!

Clearly the water wars between the Owens Valley and Los Angeles that began with the aqueduct in 1913 are not over.

Artist John Pugh of Los Gatos, Calif., last month created a mural for the California Mural Symposium, an annual gathering of artists and muralists, that would "dynamically reflect history in the Owens Valley."

The result is his 9-foot-2-inch-by-17-foot undertaking named "Drain." But the reaction of the L.A. Department of Water and Power, which has diverted the area's water for decades, was shock.

DWP regional manager Gene L. Coufal was "hopping mad when he saw the mural," Pugh says.

The mural within a mural is a well-rendered trompe l'oeil vision of a lush Owens Valley, not the parched reality of the dry lake bed that the agency spends hundreds of millions of dollars on each year for dust control alone.

Pugh used many old photographs and renderings to depict the Round Valley cherry orchards north of Bishop where there are now rows of stumps. However, he says, it's a metaphorical depiction, meant to be edgy, not incendiary.

At the opening ceremony, representatives of the DWP demanded that the small letters "LADWP" be removed from the protruding rusty drainpipe that appears to be draining the life out of the painted valley.

The DWP then canceled a $500 check it had donated to the mural society. Most of the $30,000 artist fee was covered by Jerry Core, the owner of a title company in Bishop, as well as the building on which the mural is painted, the Window Fair Building on West Line Street. Core donated additional funds to make up for the DWP's share.

In a letter to the mural society, DWP regional manager Coufal took a jab at the artwork: "It's unfortunate that at a time like this with so much terrorism, violence, hatred and war in the world, such a false and negative depiction of Los Angeles' Owens Valley water-gathering activities would be produced."

Coufal's letter said the agency would "more closely scrutinize all requests for assistance throughout the Owens Valley."

But after publicity about the case arose, the agency caved and paid.

When Chris Plakos of the DWP in Bishop was asked about the mural, he tried to wave off the request.

He then said the DWP had sent a check for $500 to the mural society -- and was moving on to other important issues.

-- Leslie Carlson

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