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Art and Activism: The Laguna Canyon Project

The Laguna Canyon Project by artists Mark Chamberlain and Jerry Burchfield | Photo: Tom Lamb (primary)
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The Laguna Canyon Project by artists Mark Chamberlain and Jerry Burchfield | Photo: Courtesy of BC Space
Applying the skin of "The Tell" — “the largest photo mural ever made.” |  Photo: Courtesy of BC Space

Forthcoming book, Laguna Canyon Project: Refining Artivism” traces a 30-year environmental art project by artists Mark Chamberlain and Jerry Burchfield which was initiated in 1980 California. Preview the publication below before it is released later this year via Laguna Wilderness Press.

The “Laguna Canyon Project,” a multi-phased art project in Laguna Beach, California (1980-2010), inspired residents to take charge of their own destiny and to avert a large-scale ecological disturbance. With the project’s several phases as backdrop and stimulus, artists and activists lobbied local and countywide forces to prevent construction of a 3,200 unit housing community in Laguna Canyon — a wide swath of undeveloped land east of the city’s downtown. Along with an army of supporters, they achieved their goal in 1989. Today, this canyon is designated as undeveloped land into perpetuity.

“Laguna Canyon Project: Refining Artivism" describes how the artwork, created by artists and educators Mark Chamberlain and Jerry Burchfield, evolved in response to the foreboding construction plans. The project further influenced the public’s understanding of the canyon’s ecological importance, sparked communal environmental debates and, ultimately, had an impact in the decision making by local and county leaders, and by the area’s landowner.

The following excerpts are from Laguna Canyon Project: Refining Artivism.” Both Mike McGee and Chamberlain detail how the project took on a life of its own.

The Laguna Canyon Project by artists Mark Chamberlain and Jerry Burchfield | Photo: Courtesy of BC Space
"Huge Bulldozers Were All Around Us." | Photo: Courtesy of BC Space

“A Struggle to Envision a Canyon” by Mike McGee

With the “Laguna Canyon Project,” Burchfield and Chamberlain created multiple artworks, which — over several years — resulted in a specific, defined impact. They stopped a track home development. And not just any development. They stopped the Laguna Laurel housing project by the Irvine Company, the hood ornament for suburban sprawl in America, owned by Donald Bren, one of the wealthiest men in the world.

On a bright spring day in 1980, Burchfield, Chamberlain and a volunteer crew of six kindred spirits set out onto the canyon and documented the entire road, or as they sardonically referred to it, “the last nine miles of westward migration,” foot-by-foot, one frame at a time. They called this effort the "Laguna Canyon Project: The Continuous Document,” an undertaking that they developed into fifteen phases that was finally completed 30 years later on June 21, 2010.

The phases of the “Laguna Canyon Project” unfolded in a series of projects, documenting and examining the canyon in different methods and increments. They documented it at night, in the daylight, as colorful industrial lights were painting it; they shot it from each side of the road and from a truck with a supporting convoy. Some of these methods of documentation would be repeated in subsequent phases years later, generally marking each decade. Initially, they approached the project as straightforward documentary, building upon the rich tradition of photography as a tool to record what the eye sees.

As the project evolved, it moved away from straight photographic documentation, combining documentary, performance art and activism. Although the term was not widely applied to art when the “Laguna Canyon Project” began, as a whole the project might be best described as social practice, the de rigueur art form today that combines various mediums, often performance art, to engage the public in the service of social causes.

The Laguna Canyon Project by artists Mark Chamberlain and Jerry Burchfield | Photo: Courtesy of BC Space
Grading for Laguna Terrace. | Photo: Courtesy of BC Space

“Refining Artivism” by Mark Chamberlain

My introduction to Laguna Beach was a truly surrealistic experience. It was the winter of 1969, and I was fleeing my Iowa home for the promise of California sunshine and unlimited possibilities. But this was an El Niño year and coming down out of the San Bernardino Mountains in a driving rainstorm was a daunting experience. From the vantage of my 1963 MG Midget, the hubcaps of the countless 18-wheelers at eye level appeared ominous, while the freeway seemed to just keep growing. I was having serious doubts about the wisdom of this move until, as I exited the I-5 Freeway onto Laguna Canyon Road, the clouds parted, the sun came out, and I suddenly found myself on a winding two-lane country road with cows grazing on the hillsides. I felt as if I had been transported back in time.

Back then, Orange County was largely citrus groves from which it gained its name, with the most productive farmland in Southern California that benefited from a year-round growing cycle. Laguna Beach was still a relatively isolated seaside community, with a rich history dating back to the early 20th century. It was sandwiched between the enormous land holdings of the Irvine and Moulton families to the east and north, and the O’Neil family ranch area to the south. These land barons were steeped in the ranching tradition and maintained a relatively paternalistic attitude towards the tiny art colony. As a consequence, the land surrounding Laguna Beach was mostly used for grazing, orchards and farming.

Largely due to its unique topography and relative isolation, the area that became Laguna Beach was always a place apart from the more open inland expanses. The mountains surrounding the area created a natural enclave that over two thousand years ago formed the boundary between two major Indian groups of the Tongva to the north at the Newport Bay, and the Acjachemen in the San Joaquin Hills and southward. With Orange County’s only vernal spring fed lakes, coastal live oaks and sycamore groves, Laguna Canyon was a welcoming seasonal encampment site for these complex hunter-gatherers as ethnographic and archeological evidence has revealed through village sites on the coastal bluffs and campsites within the canyon.

The Laguna Canyon Project by artists Mark Chamberlain and Jerry Burchfield | Photo: Courtesy of BC Space
Laguna Canyon, circa 1978. | Photo: Courtesy of BC Space

Into the 1960s, Laguna Beach had maintained the reputation of being a sleepy little artist colony quite apart from the rest of conservative Orange County. It was still mostly noted for its artists, educators and intellectuals, beach shacks and surfers, summer residents and tourists. The twisting hillside streets were narrow trails, mostly without curbs or sidewalks; they were sprinkled with simple bat and board cottages and many were named after famous painters.

California began growing rapidly during World War II and its aftermath as Los Angeles County to the north and San Diego County to the south began filling in the spaces between the cities, while Riverside County to the east was expanding as well. With the state population on its way to tripling in the second half of the 20th century, the new concept of suburban living was gaining popularity. And it seemed just a matter of time before developers saw new gold in Laguna’s farmlands, rolling hills and valleys.

The privately owned Irvine Company had begun systematically removing the orange groves and taking land out of the soil bank. This meant that they were preparing to pay higher taxes on the land, and these taxes were predicated on a higher monetary yield from that land. In addition, the Orange County Board of Supervisors was very receptive to these plans. The company and the board were quietly working together, along with county, state and federal highway agencies, to promote several major new roads to facilitate these expansions. These plans included California’s first toll roads, which would open up the land to development and link the region from north to south, and east to west.

The Laguna Canyon Project by artists Mark Chamberlain and Jerry Burchfield | Photo: Courtesy of BC Space
Beginning Phase I of the "Laguna Canyon Project," 1980.  | Photos: Courtesy of BC Space

Laguna Beach was in sharp contrast to these homogenized cities sprouting up all over Orange County, but this fragile oasis was not immune to the prospect of explosive growth. Even here, there were proposals to line the Pacific Coast with high-rise hotels and condominiums similar to those in Miami Beach and Waikiki, and to replace the old Coast Highway with a freeway that would bisect the village. Laguna Canyon, in particular was targeted for dramatic changes including widening and realigning it, creating a golf course, and building a “Master Planned Community.”

Laguna Canyon and the country road meandering along the creek bed was our link to the outer world and also the filter that protected our small town identity. But this slender umbilical cord was about to become another freeway with a red tiled tsunami following in its path — unless something was done to halt or deflect it.

After five years of intense discussions, my art partner Jerry Burchfield and I decided that the best approach might be to use our art as the vehicle to address our concerns. This idea echoed the intentions of the early Laguna Beach artists who established the defining character of the colony and invoked the even greater concept of how art can shape history. I readily agreed. In 1980, we formally undertook what we ambitiously called the "Laguna Canyon Project: The Continuous Document.”

The Laguna Canyon Project by artists Mark Chamberlain and Jerry Burchfield | Photo: Courtesy of BC Space
Mark Chamberlain documenting the south side of Laguna Canyon for Phase I of the "Laguna Canyon Project." | Photo: Courtesy of BC Space

We commenced Phase I of the project, “The Daylight Document,” on April 18, 1980. For this phase, we assembled a small crew of six people to sequentially photograph both sides of Laguna Canyon Road, from the off ramp at the Santa Ana Freeway all the way to the Pacific Ocean. We outfitted ourselves with orange highway vests for both safety and disguise since no permits were sought.

By 1985, the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor (73 Toll Road) was planned to bisect Laguna Canyon. Along with this prospect, the 3,200-unit Laguna Laurels housing project was being promoted by the powerful Irvine Company. This “master planned” community would plant a new city right in the midsection of Laguna Canyon. Both building projects were slated to begin construction in 1989.

Nineteen eighty nine was also a significant year since it was the centennial of Orange County and the sesquicentennial of the accepted date of the discovery of photography. The coincidence of these two historical events provided the ideal promotional premise for the next major phase of the “Canyon Project.”

The Laguna Canyon Project by artists Mark Chamberlain and Jerry Burchfield | Photo: Courtesy of BC Space
G.J. and Harold helping with Phase II of the "Laguna Canyon Project." |  Photo: Courtesy of BC Space

We planned to erect “the largest photo mural ever made,” titled “The Tell,” right in the canyon, to commemorate Orange County’s 100-year history and the 150th anniversary of the discover of photography. The location was to be Sycamore Flats, which was directly across the road from the proposed housing project and in the path of the 73 Toll Road.

The name “Tell” is an archeological term, referring to an unnatural mound of earth, covering evidence of prior civilizations that have been buried over in time. Our “Tell” ultimately became a 636-foot long sculptural installation. Resembling a giant reclining female figure, it undulated through the landscape, and echoed the shape of the surrounding hillsides; its centerpiece was a stylized Easter Island head. It ranged in height from 34 feet near the road, dwindling into the ground in the distance. This enormous mural was comprised of thousands of photographs; mostly color snapshots, depicting all aspects of California life. These highly personal images, all donated by “Tell” supporters, were rigorously assembled by content, color and character to fashion deeper stories about humankind’s interaction with the land. We also assembled the images by various themes along the chakra points of the body in the mural. The overall impression of the sculpture was that of a giant pointillist figurative painting, relating many tales within tales.   

The Laguna Canyon Project by artists Mark Chamberlain and Jerry Burchfield | Photo: Courtesy of BC Space
May Day, the "Laguna Canyon Project." |  Photo: Courtesy of BC Space

While this giant installation unfolded from spring to fall in 1989, our initial few stalwart supporters swelled into hundreds of volunteers. These numbers of supporters were echoed by the project itself, which evolved in complexity and notoriety over the following months. In addition, with the construction of “The Tell,” we were able to open Laguna Canyon to the public for the first time in 20 years; and people came from all over the region and the country to see the photomural, to add their stories to it, and to visit the land that was in peril of becoming a master planned community.

During the summer months, when hundreds of thousands of tourists traveled Laguna Canyon Road to Laguna Beach, “The Tell” beckoned them off the road. Once there, they were welcomed by workers on the project, along with members of the Laguna Canyon Conservancy and the Laguna Greenbelt; these groups eagerly informed the visitors of the proposed master planned community across the road and then solicited their support for their cause. The area along the road also became the site for picketing against the proposed 73 Toll Road, as well as pleas for Donald Bren to abandon his building plans. The area in front of the mural also spawned numerous spontaneous performances. National media become aware of the project and when Life magazine ran a piece, Newsweek, CNN and other major media soon followed. The photomural had become a very effective megaphone to help sound the alarm about the planned encroachments.

The Laguna Canyon Project by artists Mark Chamberlain and Jerry Burchfield | Photo: Courtesy of BC Space
Phase V roll, the "Laguna Canyon Project." |  Photo: Courtesy of BC Space

The Walk Through the Canyon, November 11, 1989, became the single most notable demonstration of all. This time, promotion of the event was actively undertaken by major environmental groups in town. As a result of the excellent campaign, an estimated 9-11,000 people turned out to walk four miles from the Festival of Arts grounds in downtown Laguna Beach out to “The Tell” to demonstrate their desire to preserve Laguna Canyon.

As a consequence of this public display and of the tremendous press coverage it generated, Donald Bren, the sole owner of the Irvine Company, agreed to negotiate with Irvine and Laguna Beach to release the land for public acquisition.

In 1990, with an 80 percent turnout, Laguna Beach residents voted overwhelmingly to tax themselves to buy the land to preserve it as open space in perpetuity. With that consensus as a key beginning, a purchase plan was ultimately hammered out and Laguna Canyon is now a key part of the 7,000-acre Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, which is linked to the contiguous 22,000 acre South Coast wilderness area of Orange County.

Mike McGee, 2016 Helena Modjeska Cultural Legacy Award winner from Arts Orange County, is professor and museum studies coordinator, California State University, Fullerton.

Mark Chamberlain, 2014 Helena Modjeska Cultural Legacy Award winner from Arts Orange County, is co-founder of BC Space gallery, Laguna Beach and of the Laguna Canyon Project.

The Laguna Canyon Project by artists Mark Chamberlain and Jerry Burchfield | Photo: Courtesy of BC Space
"The Nov 11. Walk Drew Thousands of Marchers." |  Photo: Courtesy of BC Space