ART : Two Artists Challenge Developers to Help on Canyon Photo Project

'The Tell' is a 600-foot-long mural to be composed of 40,000 photographs of life in the county.

The major land developers of Orange County will soon have a chance to prove their willingness to support arts projects that do not help further their commercial aims. They will soon be asked to contribute to a public artwork whose creators hope it will prompt viewers to ask questions about the impact that development will have on the county's most paradisiacal road.

That road is Laguna Canyon Road, California 133. The project is called "The Tell," a 600-foot-long mural to be composed of 40,000 photographs of life in the county donated by local residents.

The mural would be shaped and shaded to closely mimic the nature surrounding its location along the eastern side of the road, to the right of northbound traffic heading out of Laguna Beach. And, it is going to be built at the proposed route of the San Joaquin Hills Corridor, a toll highway that Laguna Beach artist Mark Chamberlain believes will forever alter the area's rustic identity.

"These photographs of Orange County life will also create an image of what the county is becoming," said Chamberlain, who also owns B.C. Space gallery in Laguna Beach. He created the concept of "The Tell" with fellow artist Jerry Burchfield.

"I'm not saying we are for development or against development," Chamberlain continued.

"But there should be a critical consciousness, and, yes, we're going to ask for money from the big developers--(Donald M.) Koll and (C.J.) Segerstrom and the Irvine Co. Why not? It's their county, too. They should be encouraging people to think about what is going to happen here."

The two locally well-regarded photographers said they are just starting to raise money for the $70,000 project.

Isn't it a little naive to think that developers would support a project that may provoke criticism of their goals?

Burchfield acknowledged that growth is a politically sensitive subject. "We hope they will give, but now things are pretty sensitive because of all the interest in the slow-growth initiative," he said, referring to Measure A on the November ballet. The measure places conditions on development in unincorporated areas of the county.

"We are not approaching it on a personal level," added Burchfield, 40. "We are approaching it as documentation of physical details involved in a transition that is taking place."

"The Tell" is part of a series of photographic works that Chamberlain and Burchfield call "The Laguna Canyon Project: The Continuous Document." For one piece, they used a photographic technique to produce large, luminous images of garbage collected along the road. For another, they took photographs of every inch of the nine-mile route, from the Santa Ana Freeway to Laguna Beach, at night and during the daytime.

The Laguna City Council has granted permission for "The Tell." The artists hope to have it in place by May 1, 1989. It would remain until the end of September, intentionally coinciding with the county's centennial year.

They are, in effect, treating an existing public road as if it is already an artifact.

"The road is gone," said Chamberlain, his voice low. "We decided a long time ago that it was lost. You can see how all the other pockets between here and L.A. have been filling in. Now, this will fill in too."

The work's title, Chamberlain said, stems from the archeological term "tell," which he said refers to a vertical core sampling that tells about the earth's geological history.

At its highest point, the mural will stand about 35 feet, but its shape will be irregular and consist of about 150 sections, held above the ground by a framework of wood or steel. It will be built about half a mile north of El Toro Road, next to the Sycamore Hills area.

The artists said Caltrans has already approved road modifications that they proposed to accommodate drivers who want to get a closer look at "The Tell." Drivers would turn off on an existing access road and use a graded parking area previously used for Festival of the Arts parking.

"We're focusing attention on the growing numbness of people to the landscape and the problems they create in exploiting it to the point where it doesn't return to the state in which it once was," said Chamberlain, 45.

Chamberlain and Burchfield were partners in a Laguna gallery called B.C. Space Studio for 15 years; Chamberlain still has his studio there. Burchfield, a professional photographer, has left the gallery and now teaches photography at Cypress College and has taught at Cal State Fullerton and Orange Coast College. The Chicago-born Burchfield lives in Irvine.

Chamberlain hitchhiked to California from his home state of Iowa during a college vacation. He came back after serving in the Army, met Burchfield about 1971 and started the combination studio/gallery on April Fools' Day, 1973.

They worked in side-by-side darkrooms and shared ideas through a black-curtained hole in the middle. One theme in their patter was the unspoiled nature around Laguna Beach and its future. From that conversation arose the ideas for photographic documentation.

"We're not focused just on Laguna Canyon Road in our interest, though it is our immediate subject," Burchfield added. "We're talking about the whole country. This congestion, development and rate of growth is happening everywhere in the country.

"But what makes Laguna unique is that you can sense the past the way you can't many other places. You can sense the past and how it is being encroached upon by the future."

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