Artivism as Activism in Laguna Canyon

It was only recently that I learned of the term “artivism.” It came to me through a friend by way of an amazing project and a book. The project emerged from the mind of Mark Chamberlain a California artist who used his formidable photography talents to mobilize a community. With the efforts of hundreds of citizens and through the lens of a mural, the beauty and history of their landscape was forever preserved.Screen Shot 2018-09-30 at 12.18.39 PM

In the newly released book, The Laguna Canyon Project: Refining Artivism we are immersed in an inspiring story of how the power of photography combined with activism can prevail.

Mark Chamberlain drove west in the winter of 1969 from Iowa to the sunshine promise of California. Eventually he was stopped by the Pacific Ocean at the end of Laguna Canyon. He found his new home. At that time that area of California was populated by a small art colony that began in the early 20th century. There he stayed, making the project certain.

In the 1920’s, Hollywood studios were accelerating their output and found Laguna Beach a convenient and beautiful shooting location. All Quiet on the Western Front (1930) and the 1954 version of A Star is Born are just two of the dozens of films and tv episodes shot there. Several actors used it as a respite from the stress of the industry with many of them eventually settling in. The canyon also hosted music festivals and counter-culture gatherings that grew larger and larger crowds each year. They made the city leaders uneasy and moved to shut down these events, but an awakening had already begun.

As commerce expanded to the south of Los Angeles, developers created a master plan to eradicate orange groves, build housing, business centers and of course strip malls. The locals wanted to preserve the natural beauty and protect the environment, but began to feel their power waning. The Laguna Canyon project gave them a focal point to band together, increasing their power.

Mr. Chamberlain put into motion a multi-phased plan to photograph the entire nine mile canyon stretch as well as collect garbage (dubbed a “garbological” study) to create an immense visual archive. In the book we are taken from phase to phase, complete with images of the time, as the community comes together to make their cause known.

All the work and effort culminated in a 636-foot long sculptural mural consisting of thousands of photographs of ordinary California life. The mural is essentially a wall with a wooden supporting skeleton where these photos would be placed. When viewed from a distance it took the shape of a reclining female figure. The mural was named “The Tell,” taken from the archeological term referring to a mound of earth that has buried civilizations over time.

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The timbers for The Tell superstructure cost over ten thousand dollars, January 1990

 

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An overview of The Tell under construction

The result was astounding. As most of the images were small snapshots, the mural resembled a neo-impressionist painting of tiny dots. The genius was how the images were sorted and assembled. Content, color, character and many other criteria were taken into account and helped determine where the images would be pasted on the surface. Needless to say, hundreds of people volunteered their talent and resources to achieve the visual language goal of the mural.

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Diving Figure in the early stages

Over time the natural elements worked their own magic, slowly shaping the experience by washing out or enlivening the colors of the photos themselves. The mural became integrated into the beauty of the canyon – claimed by the land – thereby increasing the power of the work, which in turn broadened interest and attention.

The project was so effective that in 1990, ninety-eight percent of Laguna Beach residents approved a vote to increase taxes enough to purchase the land outright. It is now a key part of a 7,000 acre wilderness park.

Although it is a slim volume, it packs a cultural punch and a reminder of the power of collective art. It combines Mr Chamberlain’s personal thoughts integrated with supporting contributions by Mark’s long-time partner, Jerry Burchfield, along with academics, advocates, writers and artists. The images chronicle the journey from beginning to end and provide a genuine sense for the scope of the project.

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Mr. Chamberlain on June 21, 2010. He passed away April 23, 2018 at the age of 75. Photo by Diana Drake

Order your copy directly from Laguna Wilderness Press.

More about Mark Chamberlain by Liz Goldner.

All unattributed photographs are from the BC Space archives.

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