Since 2003, a wall-sized mural created by Laguna College of Art and Design instructor Mia Tavonatti and her students brightened a building near the campus occupied by Laguna Canyon Winery.
During the last week of February, it suddenly disappeared under a thick coat of gray paint, a mystery that soon unraveled but provoked the ire of the college arts community that wants to see the work restored.
“We will do whatever necessary to cooperate with the city to rectify this situation,” LCAD President Dennis Power said, describing the mural as one of the finest early examples of the school’s mural program.
Even though it was situated on private property, the mural is classified as public art and thus subject to stringent rules regarding alterations or possible removal, according to the city’s cultural arts manager, Siân Poeschl, who first noticed the lamentable transformation on her drive home Feb. 25.
A day earlier, David Warner, of Laguna Hills sign maker, submitted a permit application to paint over the mural on behalf of brothers Marlowe and Darrel Huber, owners of Laguna Canyon Winery, who admitted to painting over the work.
City officials rejected the application, co-signed on Feb. 23 by the building’s owner, Steve Henry, as incomplete. They cited the municipal code section, which grants authority to remove public art works solely with the City Council.
As part of the application, the Hubers submitted a photo of the building wall minus the mural, but with a large black and white sign for the winery. Inconsistent with city sign ordinances and design standards, it was found to be too large.
“We heard from customers for six years that they had trouble finding us, but
we could not get permission to put up signage, not even a sandwich board, without city
permission,” said Marlowe Huber, though the name of the business is emblazoned across
his awning facing Laguna Canyon Road.
“The winery brings in tax dollars and I am paying rent for my space. I need visibility and with that mural I did not have visibility; there has to be a sign on that wall,” said Huber.
Huber said he obtained the permission of the building owner to paint over the mural, an assertion that Henry denies. “I never approved painting over the mural. Marlow painted it over to get the city moving, but that is the wrong thing to do,” said Henry, of Pacific Palisades, who has held the property for 27 years.
Henry could be subject to a $100 to $500 a day citation over the code violation, which is supposed to be corrected by March 24, according to the city’s code enforcement supervisor Joe Trujillo. No fine has yet been levied as the parties involved are trying to work out a solution, he said.
Henry wants to avoid penalties and instead explore a replacement mural with Power and Trujillo. He also expects the Hubers, seven-year tenants, to contribute to the process.
“We helped the art school financially to put it up and it was a city approved piece of art; it was a shock to me to see it taken down,” Henry said. “It’s impossible for him not to have known that what he was doing was wrong, that I could not possibly have given him permission. You can not even re-paint any building without city approval,” he said.
Huber conceded that he could accept a mural that depicted wine making in some form and included signage for the winery. However, a mural relating to an existing business in the complex would be considered commercial signage and not a mural, emphasized Poeschl and Trujillo, who received two anonymous phone complaints about the mural’s erasure.
Trujillo said he discussed the wall’s use with Huber last December. “I know that Marlowe had applied for sign permits to have a commercial sign painted on that mural but for now all his application processes for signage have been halted until the issue is
resolved,” he said.
Tavonatti, an LCAD instructor and founder of the school’s mural program,
mourned the destruction of the semester-long class project. “I thought it was in such good
shape and it amazes me that someone would just destroy a work of art, especially since it
involved such beautiful student work,” she said.
Tavonatti stressed that the mural, depicting man’s interaction with canyon life
was one of the largest in the county. Before beginning the project, she obtained proper
city permits and the approval, along with a financial contribution, from the
“The piece was a beautiful landmark,” she said. “It was very multi-layered,
showing how humans integrated with all aspects of canyon life, from hawks and
mountain lions right down to the phone poles, and all the students had signed it. He could
have used that wall to his advantage.”