Cathy Breslaw's Installation

Cathy Breslaw's Installation
Cathy Breslaw's Installation:Dreamscape

Tuesday, February 11, 2014

BC Space's Mark Chamberlain Talks About His Gallery, Art, Activism and Life

Mark Chamberlain: Interview
Mark Chamberlain (2010)
By Cathy Breslaw

Mark Chamberlain was born and raised in Dubuque, Iowa near the banks of the Mississippi River. He was one of four siblings and his father was sole proprietor of an insurance business. His earliest dreams were of being a cowboy.  Having contracted polio at ten years of age, he had to miss all of 5th grade but his time was filled with reading adventure stories including Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. When he recovered from polio, he convinced his father to buy him a flat boat and  Chamberlain spent his summers on the river meeting fishermen and cottage dwellers –seeking to live out some of the stories he read in books.  He calls himself,  “an unreformed, unrepentant river rat,"  since high school he had a dream of navigating a boat from the most northern point of the Mississippi down to the southern most point, exploring all the smaller lakes, tributaries and streams along the way.  In 2000, Chamberlain’s vision was actualized when he purchased a River Queen boat, 12 feet by 28 feet - every summer he returns to Iowa for several weeks to continue his journey down the Mississippi, which is documented through his photography, video and notes about life on the river.

Chamberlain’s interest in art and photography began in high school where he picked up skills in drafting, and learning architectural drawing in pen and ink – he says “I embraced all the mechanical and technical skills and saw the camera as another mechanical piece of equipment to learn”. He went on to graduate with a BA degree in Political Science and an MBA in Operations Research from the University of Iowa. At that point the Vietnam War was raging and he was drafted into the army where he says, “my real education began." He was being trained for Long Range Reconnaissance which was a highly dangerous job but through a series of unlikely coincidences, the base commander who knew him, helped divert his orders for Vietnam, and within hours Chamberlain’s life was set to take another turn.

Chamberlain’s new orders were to be stationed in Korea. While there, he took classes in Korean and gained a basic proficiency in reading and speaking the language. He also picked up the camera again as the base had an arts and crafts program for soldiers and families. He says the camera was both his “salvation and source of curiosity”. When on leave from the base, armed with his knowledge of Korean and his camera, Chamberlain explored the towns and countryside and documented them through his black and white photographs. His photography teacher on base became his mentor and critiqued his photographs and taught him a lot about photography including darkroom techniques.

When Chamberlain finished his stint in the army, he returned home to Iowa – his father had passed away, and the family business he thought he’d join had been sold. A friend from the base in Korea was moving to Los Angeles to open a gallery and having nothing to hold him back, Chamberlain packed up his MG Midget and joined  his friend in LA. After a year, he left LA and moved to Laguna Beach to be near his sister and brother in law.  While working a combination of photography jobs, house painting and  light construction, he happened upon the commercial space  which would eventually become BC Space.  While on an assignment to curate a photography show for the Festival of Arts, he met Jerry Burchfield, his eventual friend and partner at BC Space.

On April 1st, 1973, two kindred spirits became partners and opened up their photography gallery and commercial lab. It started out as a small space paying only $150 month rent, no lease save a handshake with the landlord’s father.  They tore down walls and added adjacent spaces. That was 41 years ago.  The original vision for BC Space was to entertain debates about contemporary art and photography and to focus on political, social and environmental issues no matter its format – including painting, installation, video and performance. Chamberlain calls it a time of “environmental awakening” for him and he commented that readings from Buckminster Fuller had a large impact on his thought process.

Chamberlain’s partnership and collaboration with Jerry Burchfield lasted for 14 years during which time they shared work on photographic shoots, lab work and provided printing services to regional museums, colleges, universities, galleries and collectors. These services have generally supported the art and photography exhibitions at the gallery which from the start did not have a particular goal of supporting itself from these shows.  Chamberlain commented, “we wanted to show what needs to be shown, not necessarily what will sell.”

Chamberlain and Burchfield embarked on several regional environmental projects during their collaboration.  It began with The "Laguna Canyon Project", a photographic documentation of Laguna Canyon Road, the main access route from the Santa Ana freeway to the Pacific Ocean. Documenting changes over 30 years, they wanted to raise awareness of the importance of the land while developers were viewing it as ripe for building. In addition to photography, they added video, sculpture, performance, installations, and related events to express their concerns, which were exhibited at the gallery.

“The Tell” was a photomural created as part of the "Laguna Canyon Project". This 636 foot long photographic mural was made up of thousands of photos – hundreds of supporters helped create this portion of the project, which was on view on location, until 1993 when fires destroyed a good portion of the mural. The installation received national media attention from CNN, Life Magazine and the Los Angeles Times and helped raise awareness and aided in the process of a public purchase of the land for future preservation.

Another collaboration of Chamberlain and Burchfield was "The Legacy Project" and "The Great Picture" which involved the closing of the El Toro Marine Corps Air Station and the future of the base’s 4700 undeveloped acres in Irvine. Decommissioned in 1993, and for the following 10 years, there was debate about the land’s future use and in 2005, it was decided to transform the land into public parkland. The collaborators had been photographing the base since 2002 and in 2005 created “The Legacy Project” with fellow photographers with the goal to be documentation of the transformation of the base into a park and to follow it for ten years. Project members collected thousands of images of the buildings, runways, and adjacent mountain ranges - what was left of ‘life’ on the base, which had been occupied since the 1940’s. The largest artwork and installation from this venture was “The Great Picture” – project members and hundreds of volunteers, converted a jet maintenance hanger into a giant Camera obscura.  Through a 35 minute exposure, through a 6 millimeter pinhole lens onto light sensitive muslin canvas, a black and white negative image was processed in an Olympic sized pool “developing tray”. The result was a gelatin silver photographic print of the control tower structures, tarmac and San Joaquin Hills.  The resulting art piece has been exhibited at several colleges and universities and the camera is certified in the Guinness Book of World Records  as being the largest camera ever recorded.

Chamberlain views himself as primarily a self taught photographer/artist, educator, curator and writer.  I would also add philosopher, thinker and dreamer who has the distinction of making things happen – he not only wants to make a difference in the world, he does.  Unfortunately his friend and collaborator Jerry Burchfield passed away in 2009 but Chamberlain continues to challenge our thinking at BC Space, probably the longest running photographic gallery in the country. Exhibitions like “Capitol Crimes” (2012) promote his social activism Chamberlain wants to share with the community. We can all look forward to the art/photography/documentation resulting from Chamberlain’s "River Tales Project" as he continues his navigations down the 2000 miles of the Mississippi River.

Als         On March 21st, for this year's Vernal Equinox, from 6-9 PM, BC Space will be showing the film
I             Inequality For All featuring former US Labor Secretary Robert Reich. For this event they are collaborating with
 with      the Laguna Beach Film Society and will offer a healthy meal and a meaningful movie with kindred spirits.

  "S        "Space" is limited and there will be a "suggested donation" for this event, so advance reservation is recommended. 

Folks interested in learning more about the gallery and its projects can purchase the book:

Mything in Action: BC Space
Grand Central Press  2013


Jerry Burchfield(left) and Mark Chamberlain(right)
Laguna Canyon Project  (1980)

"The Tell" photomural  1989  Laguna Canyon Project

The Legacy Project: The Great Picture    (2006)

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