Hansen: Mural a chance to get out of 'safe' art zone

Hansen: Mural a chance to get out of 'safe' art zone
(Courtesy Andrew Myers)

It's not often in life that we can start with a blank slate, but that's exactly what students at the Laguna College of Art & Design will do this fall when they paint the now famous 80-foot gray wall on Laguna Canyon Road.

But will that wall become another safe Laguna Beach mural, all happy and shiny and so innocuous that it will fade from your memory before you reach El Toro Road?


As you may recall, the wall's prior mural — called the largest in Orange County — was inexplicably painted over in February by the co-owner of the Laguna Canyon Winery, Marlowe Huber, who apologized and is helping fund a new mural.

That's where the school and teacher Mia Tavonatti come in.


Tavonatti is already thinking of how she wants to fill the space. In a community like Laguna, which was basically founded by artists, it is no small feat.

How do you satisfy an artistic community? Is there such a thing as an aesthetic of a city? The wall is seen by thousands every day. Is this an opportunity to make a statement in a city that — let's face it — caters more to tourists than to provocative art?

"I think the students should be given the opportunity to do a mural that makes more of a universal statement — something that's inspiring," said Tavonatti, who does not consider herself an "activist artist." But she is considering the theme "outside the box."

"Not all themes make great visuals and something that is inspiring," she said. "For me, that's what art is intended for."


Tavonatti has done various art pieces around the city and knows intuitively what will pass the city's muster, but the students may not have the same sensibilities.

"We have conversations about what kind of imagery realistically can and cannot be done," she said. "Is it sexist, is it racist, does it endorse this or that?

"You can't put that up on a public wall. I mean, you can, but you have to be prepared that so-and-so is going to react, and this group is going to react. When you're doing an 80-foot mural, you have to be conscious of all those things."

So the question is: What is appropriate? In this case, the mural does not have to adhere to the city's more stringent public art process. Technically, it's a private mural and will only have to get a nod from the city's Arts Commission. The City Council can have a final veto through an appeal.

But given the committee nature of murals, that is unlikely.


When was the last time that a public art project in Laguna was truly controversial?

Last year's brouhaha over the orange surfboard, a.k.a "The Classic," by Andrew Myers was less about content than size and location.


And the whale at the Susi Q was just too big and now works fine in Heisler Park.

I couldn't think of any other real controversy, except maybe the head-scratching assembly in front of City Hall, so I asked Mary Ferguson, Arts Commission chairwoman.

Is Laguna art too safe? I asked her.

"I don't think so," she said, pointing out a handful of works, such as the "People's Council," which I conceded. But even that is not the type of controversy I'm thinking of.

She mentioned Brown's Park and the poems — hardly the stuff of legend.

"We give as much leeway as possible to the artist," she said. "Almost every project in Laguna is site-specific."

But does public art in Laguna have broad leeway?

According to the city's cultural art manager, Siân Poeschl, the rules when it comes to vision or inspiration are murky when the seven-member Arts Commission makes its decisions.

"They make aesthetic judgments and aesthetic judgments are not written down," Poeschl said.

Indeed, the only thing written down that comes close to defining what the city's artistic vision is rests in its "Art in Public Places" ordinance, which devotes most of its six pages to defining how developers need to pay for public art.

But there is this one line: "The public health, morals, safety and welfare, as well as the popularity and prosperity of the community, are dependent upon and enhanced by visually pleasing and high-quality public art. Therefore, the City Council declares that in the interest of the public health, morals safety and welfare, it is the policy of the city to require the acquisition and installation of public art works."

So our morals depend on art, but our art depends on whose morals? The city? A school? A teacher? A student?

Is this the proverbial eye of the beholder?

I am not advocating for a Robert Mapplethorpe on the side of the Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory, but I want more than feel-good eye candy that has no soul.

Maybe we can start with something cool on the side of the Laguna Canyon Winery that won't put me to sleep while I'm driving.

DAVID HANSEN is a writer and Laguna Beach resident. He can be reached at