Artist, photographer, gallerist, socio-political activist, college professor and mentor are among the varied roles Laguna Beach resident Mark Chamberlain has filled over a span of four decades.
And they inform why he’s this year’s recipient of the Helena Modjeska Cultural Legacy Award as an “Artistic Visionary,” given by Arts Orange County on Wednesday, Sept. 22.
Chamberlain, who with the late Jerry Burchfield, co-founded BC Space gallery in Laguna Beach in 1973 and put it on the map as a venue for unbridled political art.
“It’s not hyperbole to state that our next honoree has been one of the most important figures of our day in the history of Orange County visual arts scene….His artistic medium is photography but his canvas has been as large as Laguna Canyon and the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station,” wrote Richard Stein, executive director of AOC in an email.
He praised Chamberlain as a modest, soft-spoken and sensitive individual focused in his perspective and unwavering in his commitment to use his art for the betterment of mankind.
In 2010, BC Space’s range of exhibitions themselves served as a subject of a retrospective show, “Mything in Action,” at the Grand Central Art Center in Santa Ana.
“Mark deserves recognition for his creative insights and unstoppable passion,” said Andrea Harris-McGee, now gallery director at the Laguna College of Art and Design, who with her husband Mike McGee, curated the Santa Ana exhibit.
The title alludes to Chamberlain’s military service. A draftee, he escaped combat in Vietnam to serve in South Korea, where he took up photography under a military crafts program. “The groundwork for my outlook on life and ensuing artistry was laid in the army. I learned that I could affect change not as a soldier but as a photographer,” he recalled.
Upon returning to civilian life, he determined that his passions no longer lay in business but in photography and social activism. Arriving in California in 1969, he aspired to open a photographic art gallery filled with work he loved rather than what might sell. BC Space opened in 1973 on 235 Forest Ave., a former Masonic Temple.
With the photo lab and gallery as a base, he and Burchfield began recording changes throughout Laguna Canyon and involved the partners walking and photographing the entire length of Laguna Canyon Road. The results became “The Time Machine for Moving Stills,” basically a continuous panoramas of film spooled upon machinery invented and built by, among others, Laguna artist Larry Gill who describes Chamberlain as “the best conceptual artist in Orange County.”
Gill also recalls building the spool for “The Great Picture,” produced in 2006 by Chamberlain, Burchfield and others at the decommissioned El Toro Marine Base. Converting an airplane hangar into a pinhole camera, the group produced a photograph that is entered into the Guinness World Record at 111 feet wide and 32 feet high. On exhibit at the Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C., it also traveled to China.
“Mark is an incredible artist for whom every show is a labor of love. The gallery has operated longer than any in Laguna and yet you can count on both hands the pieces that he has sold. It’s not about selling, but a discourse on what art is,” said Gill.
Even so, it is “The Tell,” a hill-shaped wall covered in photographs and erected in Laguna Canyon, that evidences Chamberlains forceful activism and his ability to enlist allies.
“Mark is definitely leading the charge in being socially engaged. He is a brilliant fighter who will let nothing die,” said Laguna Beach artist Pat Sparkuhl.
The Tell was constructed in 1989 and served as the focal point of a massive rally to protest Irvine Company plans to build homes in the canyon. The piece burned in the 1993 wild fires, but a remaining key section will go on display at the Laguna Art Museum in 2015.
Chamberlain began running the gallery solo in 1987, staging shows that skewered political corruption, decried art censorship, examined the housing crises and the aftermath of hurricane Katrina.
“Mark never met a windmill he would not tilt,” said photographer Doug McCulloh, a 16-year friend. “It’s reflexive. The world needs more Mark Chamberlains.”