Wyland brings Whaling Wall to San Diego

Downtown will receive the world-famous artist's new work, San Diego's fifth

by Alice Martinez
an Diego is in for a whale of a show. This September, world-renowned environmental marine artist Wyland will be in town to paint one of his famous "Whaling Wall" murals. The new composition will grace the walls of the San Diego National Bank Building on Kettner Blvd.
San Diego will be the seventh stop on a West Coast tour that will see the artist create eight murals in eight weeks. The tour will visit Anchorage, Vancouver, Seattle, Newport, San Francisco, and Los Angeles, and will wind up in Mexico City.
San Diego's new mural will be Wyland's 60th - he has painted 53 to date - and the fifth in our city. The other four were created at The Plunge in Mission Beach, at the Del Mar Fairgounds, and two at Sea World. (Unfortunately, two of the murals - at the Fairgrounds and Sea World - have been lost due to new construction.) While most of his compositions were created in the United States, he has also worked in Canada, Japan, Australia and France.

A man with a plan

The man known simply as Wyland (he dropped his given name Robert) has a goal: saving the whales. He sees his life-size depictions as a way to change attitudes on a big scale.
"I'm trying to paint not only the great whales but the great spirit they possess," he says. "By painting them life-sized in public places, I hope to raise people's consciousness and get them involved in protecting the whales. If people see the beauty in nature, they'll work hard to preserve it.
"It is going to make a huge difference. These murals will be seen by tens of millions of people each year. You can choose not to go into an art gallery or museum, but you can't ignore a giant mural. If even one of the kids who sees it is inspired to grow up and be another Jacques Cousteau, it will be worth it."

It's a gift

Wyland backs up his commitment with action: each of his murals is a free gift. All costs not covered by sponsorships are paid by Wyland himself, including support for his crew of 14, thousands of gallons of paint, scaffolding, brushes, rollers, sprayers - all the bits and pieces needed by this huge project.
Fortunately, Wyland is well able to afford it. There are Wyland galleries in 19 locations that sell Wyland and other environmental artists' work. Wyland's oil paintings and sculptures fetch as much as $175,000, making him one of the most successful artists in the world.

Painting from the minds eye

The composition of each mural is spontaneous, undecided until the artist approaches the blank wall with paint sprayer in hand.
"I never know what it's going to be until I start painting," he explains. "I try to paint the environment and capture the spirit of the place. From there I look into that ocean and I try to envision whales swimming across the wall. It's unique, but it seems to work."
Wyland's images come from firsthand experience. As a diver and devout environmentalist, he spends much of his time under water, studying his subjects close up. He also works with marine scientists to help ensure accuracy and a sense of realism.
"I don't paint general whales anymore. I paint whales that I've seen, that I've studied, that I've swum with," he says. "After you study them for a while, you see physical differences. Some have overbites, some have underbites."
Wyland's painting technique is also unusual: he uses no sketches or outlines, no grid on the wall - none of the traditional methods used on projects of this scope. "I think a part of me is always a few blocks away, watching, while the other part of me is nose to nose with the artwork," he explains.
Wyland works tirelessly, from 8am until dusk. Most murals are completed in a week, although he did one in Portland, Oregon, in a scant 3 1/2 days, working between breaks in a rain storm. As he often says, "You can't rest when you're on planetary duty."
He got little rest last year when he embarked on an ambitious East Coast tour, painting 17 murals in 17 weeks. From Portland, Maine, in June to Key West, Florida, in September, his stops included Boston, Providence, New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore, Atlanta and Washington, D.C.

World's largest

Wyland's murals need huge "canvases," since all of his whales are life size.
"By painting them life size, you really get your audience to appreciate them," says the artist.
Nevertheless, his 116,000 square foot mural at the Long Beach Convention Center has earned him a place in the Guinness Book of World Records as the creator of the world's largest mural. Completed in May of 1992, Whaling Wall XXXIII, "Planet Ocean," is ten stories high and 1,280 feet in diameter, covering the entire surface of the Center.
Wherever he works, Wyland is sure to draw a crowd. He welcomes participation by members of the community, enlisting the aid of scores of volunteers to become part of the crew.
Children, especially, are encouraged to help, and he always takes time to talk with them. "I think we have a real chance here with the kids. It seems to me that kids know more and are more in tune with the environment than I ever was."

An early start

The artist was born Robert Wyland, far away from the ocean in a suburb of Detroit, Michigan in 1956. Born with a severe clubfoot, Wyland underwent 11 major surgeries before the age of seven, and he was continuously hobbled by a corrective cast that prevented his swimming. He remembers frequent trips with his family to Michigan's Cass Lake, where he would watch his brothers and cousins run into the water and play while he had to stand on the shore and watch.
Using odds and ends of old house paint, Wyland started painting his first murals (of dinosaurs) at the age of three, on the headboards of the family's beds and anywhere else he found that was appropriate. When he entered school, Wyland's artistic ability became apparent to his teachers, some of whom encouraged him to concentrate more heavily on his artwork.
Wyland's mother, Darlene, also was an early influence for the budding artist. Darlene, who was divorced when Wyland was four, had four boys to raise while she worked in Detroit's auto industry. Nevertheless, she helped nurture Wyland's gift, allowing him to turn his bedroom into a makeshift studio and devote up to 14 hours a day to his painting.
At age 14, Wyland's family drove to visit an aunt in California. He finally realized his dream of seeing the Pacific Ocean and the experience left him absolutely awestruck. He was also fortunate enough to see his first whale, part of the annual migration of the California grey whales on their way down to the warm lagoons of Mexico.

Boy meets whale

The early sighting of whales had an enormous impact on Wyland's life and on his future. Upon his return to Michigan, he began painting and studying whales, dolphins, fish and the sea. At the same time he intensified his study of marine life, Wyland found time to excel in sports, completely overcoming his early infirmity. And while his mother continued to support his dedication to art, she decided her 16-year-old son needed to learn about the working world by getting a job. A series of ill-fated, minimum-wage jobs served as an important lesson: that he needed to work even harder as an artist if he was to avoid the work-a-day world.
Through the television programs of Jacques Cousteau, Wyland became greatly concerned with the alarming plight of the whales and decided he wanted to help. "I was a huge fan of his TV specials when I was young and he really inspired me to want to do something for the whales."
Wyland's first mural, for which he was paid $300, was commissioned by a teacher who owned a local Dairy Queen restaurant in Michigan. He painted an Alps scene, which the locals said made everyone hungry for ice cream.
In 1977 Wyland moved to Laguna Beach, California, an artist's mecca for more than 100 years, where he painted his first "Whaling Wall," now a famous local landmark. Laguna Beach is also where Wyland has been able to build his art studio from a tiny $100-a-month shared flat into a thriving enterprise with several hundred employees.
In 1991 Wyland moved to the North Shore of Hawaii to live, in a house which takes in a vista of the sea and, of course, whales as they make their annual migration.
There is one message that dominates this odyssey of a man and his art: Wyland's unshakable vision that in order to save the whales and other creatures of the sea, man must first open his eyes and see that he must save the earth's oceans.

Alice Martinez, a long-term San Diego resident lives in Pacific Beach within sight of the Sea World tower. Alice is a computer specialist, student of the environment, and San Diego Earth Day volunteer.

Call to action ... what you can do

Become a part of history by volunteering to assist Wyland in creating San Diego's newest Whaling Wall. Wyland will be working during the third week of September. For more information please call the Wyland Gallery at (619) 544-9995.
Visit the Wyland Gallery in Seaport Village to see the artist's paintings, sculptures and other works of art.
For more information on what you can do to help save the whales, contact the San Diego chapter of the American Cetacean Society by phoning Bob Clark at (619) 482-1518 or writing to 1404H Ridgeback Road, Chula Vista, CA 91910.