Artists 'Tell' All to Save Laguna Canyon : Activists Frame Their Preservation Message Within Photomural

You're a natural beauty Meant to be free Pretty as a picture You're my canyon to the sea. --Jim Rushing, "Natural Beauty" Jim Rushing is a leather worker by trade, selling his handmade shoes, belts and bags out of the small shop in Laguna Beach that he runs with his wife, Linda. But he also fancies himself a songwriter and has been composing tunes for about 20 years.

Last year, Rushing put his thoughts on the Laguna Canyon and other environmental concerns to music. He handed the compositions to his friend Mark Kenoly, who went into a studio and came out with a tape of the songs in slick pop and jazz arrangements.

Since June, Rushing has been selling copies of the tape, "Great Things," at special events and through Laguna Beach music shops. They are stamped with "Save the Canyon" stickers and generally are displayed alongside brochures for the Laguna Canyon Conservancy, an activist group that is working to block several planned developments in the canyon. So far, about 300 tapes have sold at $10 each. Half the proceeds go to the conservancy.

"I just tried to express the beauty of the canyon," says Rushing, who has become a director of the conservancy, coordinating much of its merchandising effort. "It was very easy to write the lyrics."

Other artists and craftsmen in Laguna Beach, which has long lived off its reputation as an artists' colony, have joined in aiding the canyon preservation effort. Some have donated proceeds from artworks, some have donated T-shirt and greeting card designs, and musicians have performed for free at public gatherings. Others have put their brushes aside to do the all-important political work: organizing, reading environmental impact reports, writing letters.

Even the beach city's popular summer art festivals have gotten into the act. The Sawdust Festival donated booth space to the conservancy this summer, while the Laguna Festival of Arts gave $10,000 to help underwrite "The Tell," a giant photomural that stretches along a portion of Laguna Canyon Road, providing a rallying point for canyon activists.

"Art is a very powerful tool of discovery," Rushing says. "We actually have very few other tools at our disposal."

"The Tell" sits at a point where the proposed San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor, a 14-mile tollway linking Newport Beach and San Juan Capistrano, would cross Laguna Canyon Road. A sign, funded by the city of Laguna Beach, informs travelers that the tollway would be 800 feet wide and more than 40 feet high at the site.

Around a bend is the site of the proposed Laguna Laurel project, where the Irvine Co. hopes to build more than 3,000 homes, 82 acres of commercial development and a 276-acre private golf course. Right now, there are no homes or businesses in the canyon's largely pristine upper end.

Many area residents want to keep it that way. Laguna Laurel and the transportation corridor are two main targets of the conservancy, a relatively new and political offshoot of the long-established Laguna Greenbelt Inc. With "The Tell," where the conservancy maintains an information booth, activists have been able to draw people to the site and to explain their side of the story.

"People will come out to 'The Tell' because they're curious," says Linda Eckmann, a conservancy director in charge of membership. When passers-by are told of the development plans, Eckmann says, "their mouths drop open."

"We've picked up, I think, a lot of people that way. . . . If we get 10 more people going to a meeting, that's fantastic. If we get 10 more letters being written, that's fantastic too."

Attendance at the mural grows and ebbs. During the summer art festival season, which ended Sunday, sometimes as many as 100 would gather there late in the afternoon as they made their way home. At other times, even during free concerts, it's been almost deserted. But Mark Chamberlain, a co-organizer of the project, guesses that the number of people who have visited so far has been in the thousands.

"The Tell" has further helped spread the group's message via newspaper and magazine coverage.

"We don't have a public relations budget, so we can't advertise," says Ken Kube, a conservancy volunteer. But the project--a plywood backdrop shaped to correspond to the surrounding hills, plastered with donated family snapshots--has been given national exposure in Life magazine and has been the focus of dozens of local articles.

The Guiness Book of World Records has promised to check a claim that "The Tell" is the world's largest photomural. And with every mention, Kube notes, "we get our story out."

"I don't think it's a protest piece," says Chamberlain. "It's a very positive piece. . . . This is about people having fun."

The idea of the mural is to depict family life as it exists now, without a huge road through the canyon, without yet another mega-development. The people and places and things in the pictures and the trees and fields surrounding "The Tell" are all part of the same environment, an environment that's threatened. If these projects go through, that environment changes, and at least some of it dies.

" 'The Tell' is one of the most poetic things I've ever experienced," says Eckmann. "All those little captured moments--I think it is absolute poetry."

"To me, it's really a reflection of the human spirit," Kube adds. "If we want to stop the corridor, stop Laguna Laurel, we need that spirit."

But whether the project has helped change the minds of developers and planners is another matter.

One answer of sorts came this week in the form of two environmental reports from the county planning department.

One calls for the transformation of Laguna Canyon Road north of El Toro Road from a meandering two-lane country road into a major arterial highway that would connect to the Transportation Corridor. The other would clear the way for most of the Laguna Laurel project. Residents have 45 days to comment on the reports before the projects go before county supervisors, who will approve or reject them.

Wayne Johnson, a county planner who worked on the reports, recommends that opponents keep pursuing the usual channels: writing letters, attending meetings and responding to the environmental impact reports. But, he said, symbolic gestures such as "The Tell" are hard to accommodate in the highly formalized planning process.

"Government can't respond to everything," Johnson said. "Government doesn't even know everything that's out there."

"Yes, we are aware of 'The Tell,' " said Donna Stubbs, public affairs manager for the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor Agency, whose members have met with co-organizer Chamberlain. "In a broad sense," she said, the concerns expressed in the installation "are certainly taken note of, I would say."

Aesthetics are accommodated in the planning process, she added, along with archeological, historical and wildlife concerns.

She said many of the claims made by canyon activists are untrue or misleading: The "800 foot" width mentioned on the city's sign reflects only one plan under consideration. The currently preferred alternative would be just half that--400 feet--at its widest point and would average about 180 feet--three lanes in each direction and a median with two reversible car-pool lanes and space for mass transit.

The Irvine Co., meanwhile, withheld comment on "The Tell" because, according to a spokesman, "none of the key people" on the Laguna Laurel project has seen the mural yet.

"It would please me to no end if (Irvine Co. chairman) Donald Bren would care to come here and sit down in this meadow and look at what people have done," Chamberlain says as he fiddles with an unlit cigarette. "Maybe I should send him an invitation."

Chamberlain, who directed "The Tell" with former BC Space Gallery partner Jerry Burchfield, is sitting on a bench at the far end of the photomural--636 feet from the road, to be exact--a straw hat shielding his eyes from the bright afternoon sun.

While he hopes those who hold the keys to the canyon's future--planners, landowners, politicians--will be moved by "The Tell" to heed its message, realistically he believes the project will have an indirect effect at best.

"It is a flag, if you will, something to rally around. . . . People have been thirsting for a direct way to express their feelings." The mural is due to be torn down at the end of this month, but Chamberlain hopes to persuade the city to let it stand until February, when insurance on the site runs out.

"The Tell" is the latest phase in the Laguna Canyon Project, an ongoing artistic and documentary exploration of the canyon that Chamberlain and Burchfield launched in 1980. At first, "The Tell" was conceived as a huge Cibachrome mural, but the specialized method of color photographic printing would have been enormously costly. The idea of using donated photos for the mural first was conceived as a way to save money.

"It turned out to be the absolute right way to do it," Chamberlain says. Instead of a private studio project, the project became a very public effort, "a town meeting disguised as a work of art" in the words of Times art critic Cathy Curtis. Thousands of people donated photographs; hundreds more helped paste the pictures to the plywood support structure.

Chamberlain says that many of the passers-by who stopped to peer at the snapshots told him they had never really thought about environmental and development issues in the canyon, which which he says refutes any argument that the project is preaching to the converted.

Many people today "almost think that if it's an open piece of ground, it must be developed," Chamberlain says. The main purpose of the "The Tell" is "to get people involved in the question" of how to shape the future of Laguna Canyon and, in a larger sense, involved in the issue of the human relationship to the land."

"It has been a very potent environmental statement," Chamberlain says. "If nothing else, we've succeeded in getting people 636 feet off that road. Some people have never done that before."

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