Laguna Canyon Mural Comes Down : Environment: 'The Tell' photo exhibit is credited with dramatizing the efforts of anti-development forces.


In an act one participant compared to taking down the family Christmas tree, dozens of volunteers on Saturday dismantled "The Tell," the giant photomural that has served as a focal point for activists working to keep development out of Laguna Canyon.

"It's been kind of a sweet, sad day," said Mark Chamberlain, a photographer who organized the project with fellow artist Jerry Burchfield. "This is by no means the end, but it's the end of this phase at least."

In assembly-line fashion, volunteers cut the mural along the seams of the plywood support structure, then numbered the panels and took them down. After staples were cut from the back, the panels were stacked in trucks and trailers to be taken to storage. A few panels were sawed into small sections to be sold at $25 apiece.

Meanwhile, visitors stopped for a last look at the giant mural, many posing for photographs and videos. People began arriving before 8 a.m., according to Linda Eckmann of the environmental activist group, Laguna Canyon Conservancy, which has collected thousands of signatures at an information booth at the site. "People knew it was their last chance to see it," she said.

"We ran down as fast as we could, and obviously none too soon," said Laura Jennings of Rancho Santa Margarita, who first heard of the mural last week and came Saturday with her family. "I think it's really special."

Construction of "The Tell" began May 1 at a site along Laguna Canyon Road where it intersects with the proposed San Joaquin Hills transportation corridor. More than 600 feet long, the mural--contoured to mirror the surrounding hills--was pasted over with an estimated 100,000 photographs donated by individuals.

"The Tell" was dedicated Aug. 19. On Nov. 11, it served as the destination of a march through the canyon that drew an estimated 7,000 to 8,000 people. The march was to protest Irvine Co. plans to build 3,200 homes in Laguna Canyon. The developer has since frozen its plans and is in negotiations with the city of Laguna Beach.

Harry Huggins, executive coordinator of the Nov. 11 march, said Saturday that "The Tell" helped spark a new environmental consciousness in the community. "I suspect it's going to have significance in the history of this canyon," Huggins said. Even though the mural will be gone, the site is expected to be used for other activities, including a planned April 22 Earth Day observance.

Burchfield, taking a break from the dismantling work, spoke of the mural with obvious pride. "It's gone way beyond what we thought possible, in terms of public support and participation," he said. "We reached out to the people, and the people responded. The people made it possible."

"The Tell"-- tell is an archeological term for a mound of buried artifacts--is the latest phase in an ongoing 10-year effort by Burchfield and Chamberlain to document Laguna Canyon. In addition to its success as a rallying point for activists, Burchfield said that he also is pleased with the mural's artistic impact.

By the time of its dismantling, most of the color photographs had faded to a dull yellow, while the black-and-white pictures (arranged in human, animal and symbolic figures) maintained their contrast, standing out in sharp relief. Consequently, the mural has evolved so that the viewer's emphasis has shifted from the individual family snapshots to the mural as a whole and its symbolic value, Burchfield said.

Burchfield believes the project has made the concept of art--and contemporary art in particular--less imposing for the mural's hundreds of volunteers and thousands of visitors. Art, Burchfield said, "maybe isn't as alien to them as they thought."

The dismantling of "The Tell" had been expected to be a two-day project, but the small group of remaining volunteers burst into applause at 4:10 p.m. as the last piece of the mural was pulled from the support. The skeletal timber structure will remain for another week, Burchfield said, and the posts will remain for a week after that.

Chamberlain likened the mural's skeleton to a "giant beached fossil," while Burchfield said it will serve as a reminder--because of the resemblance to homes under construction--of the Laguna Laurel development planned nearby.

Both artists said they felt good as late-afternoon shadows stretched across the site and the last of the mural came down. "It's like the opening and closing of an art show," Chamberlain said. "It's also time to start something new."

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