LAGUNA BEACH : Finding a Stepping Stone for His Art

Despite the chilly welcome he received last year after creating a very public work of art at Main Beach Park, Joe Mangrum is back in town.

This time, he has a permit.

Last year, the San Francisco artist would no sooner complete one of his creations at Main Beach--arranging flowers, berries and branches in a colorful swirl--than city cleanup crews would unceremoniously sweep it away.

This year, Mangrum is taking advantage of a city law that allows people to create temporary displays at the cobblestone area of Main Beach if they obtain a permit and a $1-million liability insurance policy.

While he was not thrilled at the prospect of paying $600 to secure the insurance policy, the self-described "environmental artist" said he wanted to return to Laguna Beach to deliver his artistic message.

"There's still lots of good artists here," he said. There also is an element of "art for tourism and the cash dollar. If I see one more painting of a dolphin . . . "

He started last week by concocting "Creation, Capitalism and Corrective Surgery," an expanding mosaic of seeds, auto parts, flowers and other stuff, including a roller-skate, a doll's head and a container of peanut butter.

"It's really abstract at this point," Mangrum said Wednesday. "Hopefully, by the end of the week, it will just be a pile of flowers."

Curious pedestrians on Wednesday glanced or lingered at the splashy display as the artist--wearing shorts and a ski-cap--sat contemplating his creation.

One woman seemed as fascinated with Mangrum as with his artwork.

"It's really interesting," she said. "He smiles sometimes and he thinks really deeply."

If it's a relief to now have only the rain threatening his display, Mangrum said he's still annoyed because city officials won't let him set out a bucket for passersby who might feel moved to make a donation.

It is illegal to solicit donations in Laguna Beach without a charitable solicitation permit, recreation director Pat Barry said.

Last year, Mangrum's display was cleared away at night because it was created on the grass rather than the designated cobblestone, and the artist did not get a permit, Barry said.

Permit applicants must prove they have a $1-million insurance policy that also insures the city.

City officials say they have received a number of complaints about Mangrum's creations, and City Manager Kenneth C. Frank said he considers the display "a mess." Still, the art is welcome until Sunday, when Mangrum's permit expires.

In the meantime, Mangrum said he is getting by with a little help from the locals, many of whom have welcomed him, offering food and shelter.

Many people have also taken part in his "community interactive piece," including a visiting Vietnamese scholar who Mangrum said added a Styrofoam container, tea bag, slices of orange and lemon and "part of a sandwich, I think," to the mix.

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