Laguna Canyon Project

The Laguna Canyon Project: The Continuous Document (1980-2010), an environmental art project, inspired Laguna Beach residents to take charge of their own destiny and to change the course of history. With the Canyon Project’s 1989 outdoor art photomural/installation, The Tell, as a backdrop and stimulus, Laguna citizens forged a partnership with local and countywide political forces to stop unbridled development in the area.

As a result, Laguna Canyon, within the 7,000 Laguna Coast Wilderness Park, was saved from the proposed 3,200-unit Laguna Laurel housing project. Today this canyon, one of the last natural corridors to the Pacific Ocean in Southern California, is designated as open space.

Origins of the Laguna Canyon Project

In 1980, Laguna Beach photographers Mark Chamberlain and Jerry Burchfield formally commenced this project to document changes in Laguna Canyon over time. Their goal was to create broader awareness of regional and global environmental issues, and to stimulate public debate about these concerns. They believed that the canyon was crucial to the identity of their community. Over a period of 30 years, they executed 16 phases of the Laguna Canyon Project. (See below.)

By 1987, the proposed Laguna Laurel housing project threatened to consume the region. In response, Burchfield and Chamberlain lobbied Laguna Beach to gain permission to execute The Tell photographic mural, as Phase 8 of the Laguna Canyon Project. Their ultimate purpose in erecting this installation was to draw attention to this proposed housing project—to be built across Laguna Canyon Road—which they felt would decimate their beloved canyon. Two years later, supported by an army of volunteers, they completed The Tell. Faced with an estimated 100,000 personal photographs, it undulated across the landscape, with a shape resembling the surrounding canyons.

The Walk to Save Laguna Canyon

The Tell became the logical destination for the 1989 “Walk to Save the Canyon.” On Veterans Day, 1989, 8,000 to 11,000 people walked, biked, roller-skated and skate-boarded from downtown Laguna Beach out to The Tell. They then held a daylong demonstration there, protesting construction of the housing project. Largely as a result of this “Walk” and demonstration, the Irvine Company abandoned its plans to build the housing project. One year later, Laguna residents voted to tax themselves to purchase the canyon land formerly in dispute.

Today, Laguna Canyon Road and its surrounding hills are designated to remain undeveloped in perpetuity, largely through the efforts of artists and volunteers who participated in an extraordinary environmental art project at a crucial time.

For more information check out Laguna Canyon Project Wikipedia page.

Laguna Canyon Project: Refining Artivism

A soon to be published book, “Laguna Canyon Project: Refining Artivism," by Laguna Wilderness Press, relates the profound influence that this project had on environmental debates and on decision making by community leaders, ultimately resulting in the preservation of the canyon.

Excerpts from "Laguna Canyon Project: Refining Artivism"

The Iconography of The Tell: The Art Part (by Mark Chamberlain)

The overall shape of the mural was based on the profile of a reclining female figure that is in the Laguna Canyon landscape when viewed from the road looking outbound near Sycamore Flats. We made the head slightly more androgynous to resemble an Easter Island head and to become more representative of humankind as a whole…

The story line began at the end, near the Tail of The Tell, with abstract visual references to Earth's origins as star matter in the Cosmos… As the story progressed, coming out of the hillside down toward the road, the mural had the first recognizable shapes at the 57-foot long Barosaurus dinosaur. Then there appeared a depiction of the Indian Ceremonial Plaza, followed by a Conestoga Wagon careening downhill overtaking a startled deer. This was followed by other symbols of the "White Man's" influence, such as a telegraph pole with a dollar sign and a cactus made up of steel and glass buildings (symbolizing the transformation of this semi-arid region into cities)…The throat had a traffic jam of cars, tankers, trucks, and buses. This section addressed the fact that, in the final days of their collapse, the Easter Islanders gathered into separate tribes defending their “heads” and breaking their enemy’s heads at the throats, with the belief that they would thereby capture their enemy’s power.

A Struggle to Envision a Canyon (by Mike McGee)

The project functioned in turns as documentary, straight photography, 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 project is, however, grounded in photography and its rich history of landscape and documentary imagery—Ansel Adams would surely approve.

How The Tell Helped to Set the Stage and the Negotiations that Followed (by Paul Freeman)

Following The Tell's construction, there was a big "Walk to Save the Canyon," where thousands of citizens from all over Orange County marched down the Canyon Road to call attention to the issue, and to press for preservation of the canyon's precious open space....Maybe there still would have been the 1989 Laguna Canyon Walk, even without The Tell. Maybe there would still would have been the negotiations, and then a happy outcome. But I doubt it. In any case, I’ve been asked to focus on what came next, namely the multi-party negotiations that lasted the better part of 1990.

Remembering The Tell (by Mike Phillips)

The timing of The Tell was crucial: it began after the Orange County Board of Supervisors approved the Laguna Laurel Development Agreement (legal vested rights). While a lawsuit on the agreement was delaying the process, numerous people who cared about the fate of the canyon wanted to do something. The Tell gave them that outlet. Constructing this photomural was a democratic activity. Here, all that was necessary to participate was the ability to paste photographs onto it, and to bring a positive attitude.

How an Art Project Preserved a Canyon (by Leah Vasquez)

Laguna Canyon Road was a two-lane artery with overarching sandstone walls, giving way to open space and low-lying hills. The road meandered for eight miles, cleaving the upper lakes, going through an arbor of 100 year-old coast live oaks, and passing by groves of eucalyptus trees and spreading sycamores. Those of us who dwelled in this area, just south of El Toro Road, were called “canyon rats,” living in the City’s hinterlands where rural businesses, artists and outliers rejoiced in uncongested solace.

Reflections on Photography, the Laguna Wilderness and the Laguna Canyon Project (by Jerry Burchfield)

Enthralled with the community, I moved to Laguna Beach in 1971 and began making forays into the canyons, exploring and making photographs. Those of us who lived in Laguna Beach treasured the wilderness areas that separated Laguna from the rest of the world. Those commuting through the canyon to jobs inland described the drive home as their "cocktail."

Introduction (by Liz Goldner)

"Laguna Canyon Project: Refining Artivism" describes how this Project, created by artists and teachers Mark Chamberlain and Jerry Burchfield, evolved in response to the foreboding construction plans. This Project further influenced the public understanding of the canyon’s ecological importance, the ongoing environmental debates and ultimately decision making by community leaders. New residents and visitors to Laguna Beach enjoy this unspoiled canyon—one of the last natural corridors to the Pacific Ocean in Southern California. Yet relatively few know of how Laguna Canyon came to be preserved.


The Laguna Canyon Project was the subject of an exhibition, The Canyon Project: Artivism, held at Laguna Art Museum, October 18, 2015 through January 17, 2016.

The word "Artivism" describes the activist work that Chamberlain and Jerry Burchfield have pursued since the early 1970s. This neologism refers to methods they used in their collaborative art projects and installations to address critical environmental and social issues, with the hope that these methods would in turn inspire others to pursue a better world.

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