ART / Cathy Curtis : 'The Tell' Does Indeed Deliver Its Message of Protest

Its creators call it the largest photomural ever created. It may also be one of the sunniest, most rousingly all-American forms of protest art in recent memory. Pieced together from about 60,000 donated snapshots and larded with symbolism, "The Tell" stands as a monument to volunteer effort and to the passions aroused by threats to a cherished portion of the local environment.

As it undulates parallel to Laguna Canyon Road at the point where plans call for an 800-foot-wide freeway to intersect the road, the mural's silhouette mimics the shape of the hills behind it. The outline of the hills resembles a large, peaceful face swelling gently into a female form; in response, the mural sketches the contours of the massive breast and rounded belly of a sleeping Mother Earth.

A series of angled beams perched on the portion of the wall closest to the road is intended to evoke one of the famous giant volcanic stone sculptures of Easter Island. The decline of the original Polynesian culture is believed to have been precipitated by deforestation and other environmental blights and also by infighting among the islanders--a situation conservationists believe is all too relevant to the quality of late 20th-Century life.

From a distance, the photographs--organized by film stock type and color--read as a series of large, simple silhouettes: jugglers, a swimmer, a tree that looks like a woman, running figures about to collide, a deer, a dinosaur, oil wells, a dancing figure made of photos of buildings, a giant dollar sign.

This is the most disappointing thing about the piece, as the images seem cliched and scattershot, in the blundering fashion of much mural art. The general idea seems fairly clear, however: Nature is ancient, nurturing and full of good vibes, but greed has turned it into a battleground.

Close up, the snapshots become a mosaic of everyday life: people sleeping, making dinner, bathing their children, giving parties; people skiing, sailing, dancing, rafting and vamping in bathing suits; people smiling in keepsake portraits at graduations and weddings; people in the buff posing for intimate partners. There are shots of pets and living rooms and landscape views, gravestones, works of art and four-wheeled hunks of metal.

Nearly all the photographs are either bland studio portraits or the lopsided snapshot images that fill most folks' photo albums. But massed together, the sea of faces takes on a life--actually several lives--of its own.

On the simplest level, the photographs provide a folksy record of good times and a hunting ground for local viewers looking for images of friends. But they also compose a giant "We the People," a mute testimony to the power of citizens' banding together for a cause.

Mark Chamberlain--co-director, with Jerry Burchfield, of the project--estimated that since May 1, an average of about 100 people a day donated their time to paste down photographs under a broiling sun. They included housewives, retirees, business people, children, members of organizations, and lone bicyclists and trekkers. And, of course, there were the uncounted numbers of Orange County residents have who turned in boxes and bales of photos. The images really do, then, represent a community presence.

"The Tell" is a peculiarly modern kind of folk art--quilting bee, barn-raising and hell-raising all in one. It isn't meant to be beautiful. It's not even meant to last (it is scheduled to be torn down at the end of September). Rather, it is meant to involve people on a relatively small scale, so that they become involved on the much larger scale of issues affecting the quality of life.

The Laguna Canyon Conservancy says the proposed San Joaquin Transportation Corridor will bring more traffic, destroy the natural habitat of native and endangered animals and plants, and eliminate the only two natural lakes in Orange County. The conservancy asks whether it is worth losing a precious pocket of rural tranquility in order to achieve the Irvine Co.'s plans: 3,200 new homes, 82 acres of commercial development and a 276-acre private golf course as well as the corridor.

"The Tell"--the title is an archeological reference to a hill covering the remains of ancient communities--is a reminder of what's at stake. It's a way of getting us to stand still for a moment and consider the value of this hunk of natural landscape where coyotes prowl and old Indian paths are still visible in the tall grasses. The mural is rooted in public involvement. It's broadly democratic. It's a town meeting disguised as a work of art.

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