into the World of
By Kathy DeSantis
Awareness Magazine met with Wyland while he was in town celebrating the “Silver Anniversary” of Wyland Galleries which was held at both Laguna Beach galleries this past July and is still being celebrated at the galleries in Hawaii.
I am especially interested in Wyland and this assignment as I recalled seeing the young artist trying to paint his very first wall in Laguna Beach back in 1981. No one knew who he was or what he was trying to do, except that it attracted attention of people driving or walking down Pacific Coast Highway. Little did anyone know what kind of horrors he would face trying to accomplish that single goal, and how hard he would fight local politics to keep the wall (and many others) from being destroyed forever.
More than thirty years later, his high profile generates the kind of attention endangered marine animals such as Pacific otters, manatees and humpback whales need to ensure their survival. Now thousands of people routinely show up to watch with support and in awe as Wyland creates images of sea life across the wall of a massive warehouse or a 16-story building. His gallery shows are standing room only, and his book signings are abuzz with scores of die-hard Wyland fans. In fact, everywhere Wyland goes the energetic artist, sculptor and writer seems to draw a crowd.
As I talked to Wyland on the outside deck of his Laguna Beach gallery on that summer day a few months ago, I listened with fascination as he described his plans, his past and some of the many obstacles he encountered along the way. I found him to be truly dedicated to the environment, using his art to educate and inform. Generous with his time and talent, he impressed me as hard-working, ambitious, friendly and kind, as well as articulate in the expression of his intentions and visions. As he talked of his love for marine mammals, we noticed a pod of dolphins swimming by. They jumped up for air right in front of us, just like one of Wyland’s paintings. As we watched them splash, I couldn’t help but think that I was privileged to be part of a rare, magical moment.
Wyland deserves much credit for being a crusader for the environment and making a big difference in how we view and treat our planet.
Ecology and the environment are not the “popular” issues they once were in the 60s and 70s. Although he was once a starving artist, he has since pioneered a bold new art movement that may be the most dedicated and meaningful environmental project ever undertaken by a single artist. I am a big fan of Wyland’s art, yet I hadn’t really understood the vastness of his vision and now I hope to familiarize and impress readers of Awareness Magazine with some of what I learned.
Who Owns the Oceans?
The oceans belong to everyone. The ocean is our commonwealth. If the oceans die, we die. Yet, who is in charge of the oceans? The United Nations is not. America is not. Japan is not. You get the picture — no one is taking accountability and responsibility. Someone needs to, so Wyland, “The Michelangelo of the Oceans and Seas,” along with Mark Victor Hansen have decided to work with each other, along with Scripps Institute of Oceanography and the Jacques Cousteau Society, to clean the oceans and replenish them.
Said Wyland: “My ultimate goal is to bridge the gap between science and art. So I need that collaboration with marine biologists.”
Through his work as a painter, sculptor and muralist, Wyland has achieved worldwide commercial success, enabling him to share his dedication to preserve marine life through public art and education. The Guinness Book of World Records recognized him in 1992 as painter of the world’s largest mural — a painting wrapping around the Long Beach Sports Arena in California.
In 1998, the United Nations proclaimed him the official artist for the International Year of the Ocean and issued a commemorative stamp in his honor. Wyland, who legally dropped his first name, Robert, in 1992, is probably best known for his “Whaling Walls,” as he calls them. Wyland’s huge ocean murals populated with life-size whales can be seen on the side of his galleries on Pacific Coast Highway and on Broadway Avenue in Laguna Beach, as well as the Southern California Edison Co. plant in Redondo Beach (his personal favorite) and the large mural along the Long Beach Sports Arena, (his most challenging) which he painted during the Los Angeles riots.
“I literally had a bullet whiz past my head when I realized it was time to stop painting and go home,” he said. The three-acre work of art required 7,000 gallons of paint and six weeks to complete.
And anyone who drives California freeways no doubt has seen his whale tail license plate which raises funds for coastal conservation.
He has painted 88 “Whaling Wall” murals around the world that have been seen by over one billion people. His goal is to paint 100 “Whaling Walls.” If you recall the movie “Free Willy”, based on the life of the ocean park whale Keiko, it was Wyland who painted a mural contributing to Keiko’s release from imprisonment and death to safety, freedom and life.
The year 2011 marks 30 years Wyland has invested in the largest art project in the world, “Wyland: The Whaling Walls,” and in celebration of that event, his vision is to paint ten miles of “The Great Wall of China” as his 100th “Whaling Wall,” dedicating it to cleaning and replenishing of the oceans and seas. He has asked Mark Victor Hansen to spearhead this project and help assemble the “Lead Team.” He says this wall is to be his last, in honor of all great whales of the world.
Wyland expects to have representatives from 190 countries present as he paints 10 miles of the world’s longest wall (3,500 miles). Beforehand, he wants the children of the world to enter his contest to paint what they believe needs to be lastingly imprinted on the wall. He wants to have one million children on his right and one million children on his left as he works to produce the world’s biggest, greatest and longest “Whaling Wall” mural. It is such an extravagant undertaking that it will capture the attention of the entire world. The world’s people will hear what needs to be done and will pitch in to help.
This event is to take place during the Winter Olympics in China so the media will be in China for that broadcast and will no doubt be filming the progress on the biggest mural ever! Wyland has also teamed with other promoters of marine conservation causes to paint this wall. Anyone who can get to China is welcome to contribute, he says.
“Murals are my way of spreading the word that these animals need to be respected and protected,” said Wyland. “It’s like hands across the ocean. The Chinese will get it.”
Educating Youth and The Wyland Foundation
The Wyland Foundation is a non-profit organization established by the artist to promote environmental education programs for youth. Every Wyland public mural project involves the local community, especially school children. And recently he signed an agreement for a new educational partnership with the Scripps Oceanographic Institute to continue the Wyland Ocean Challenge. The next phase of the program, “Clean Water 21st Century,” will be presented to every school in America, grades K-12. The goal, as always, is to share the wonder of the sea — and to make a difference along the way.
“Art is a powerful medium that can create tremendous awareness and awaken the senses,” Wyland says. “I would be happy to inspire even one person to become the next Jacques Cousteau . . . or, even the next Wyland.”
A “Wyland Weekend” in February encourages kids to come and draw their own version of life under the sea. Wyland calls it “Art to Promote Science” and this year marks the eighth in a row.
The Wyland Foundation funds the mural projects with money raised by local and national sponsors. For more information about the Laguna Beach, California-based Wyland Foundation, call 877-8WYLAND or visit online at www.wylandfoundation.org . (Check out the “Cool Facts” section of his web site dedicated to kids!) Wyland’s mother Darlene is president of the Foundation and will proudly show you the headquarters office in the gallery on Coast Highway.
The son of Detroit, Michigan auto workers, Wyland’s early ability to draw was quickly recognized. His talent was nurtured by his mom and schoolteachers, who encouraged him to follow his aspirations of becoming an artist. He became fascinated with underwater subjects, and soon began blanketing his home with images of blue whales, orcas and sharks. But it wasn’t until a family trip to Laguna Beach, California, in 1971, that Wyland actually encountered his first whale. Standing in the waters of the Pacific Ocean for the first time, he came face to face with two California Gray Whales — less than 200 yards away— on their annual migration to the warm breeding grounds of Baja Mexico.
“It was as if everything had changed for me at that point,” he says. “I knew that’s what I wanted to do with my life. I wanted to paint these magnificent creatures. And I told myself I would do whatever it took to make that happen.”
Eventually he settled in Laguna Beach permanently. And at age 25, after two years of legal wrangling with the local government, he painted his first life-size Whaling Wall mural of California Gray Whales less than 500 feet from the site of his first whale encounter. Next he embarked on a 30-year goal of painting 100 gigantic murals, which he dubbed “Whaling Walls,” to call attention to the beauty of the undersea world.
In his biographical book, “Whale Tales,” he tells stories of how he got started and the constant opposition and negative press he encountered in painting the public murals. He deserves enormous credit for pursuing his dream on behalf of the mammals while others would have given up. His ambition knows no bounds.
During the past 20 years Wyland’s dive excursions have taken him from Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to the islands of Fiji. His early reputation as a great marine artist led to a meeting with Hawaii-based whale researchers, Mark and Debbie Ferrari, who invited him on one of their whale study excursions in 1980. Soon the trio was heading out of Lahaina Harbor in a small Zodiac toward a pod of spouting humpbacks. Equipped with cameras and dive gear, Wyland found himself closer to a 55-foot Humpback mother and her calf than he could ever have imagined.
“I knew immediately that I was looking into the eyes of an intelligent mammal,” Wyland says. “Ordinarily the mother will position herself between her calf and a diver, but this whale actually presented her calf to me. Probably more than anything else, that experience elevated my art to a new level. It changed my perspective and relationship to these great animals. It was also the first time I felt how truly important it is to bridge the worlds of science and art. That mission continues to be the focal point of my work today.”
Although best known for painting whales, Wyland’s extensive diving experience has lent an even greater authenticity to his paintings and sculptures of whales, dolphins, manatees, manta rays, sea lions, billfish, sharks and reef fish. On most dives he carries a Nikonus RS camera with a wide-angle 20-35mm lens or a 35mm Nikonus V. The photographs are essential both as a reference tool and in the actual creation of his art.
“Underwater photography has helped me strengthen all areas of my art,” he says. “The idea for what I call my ‘underwater photography painting’ is to capture the undersea world in photography and blow up the image into a large print called a Cibachrome. Then I oil paint directly onto the Cibachrome background. The end result is collaboration with nature and art.”
“It used to be that the only marine art you would see were images of man’s conquest of the sea,” Wyland says. “You would see ships and boats hunting whales, but I wanted to change all that. My marine life art celebrates the living whales — and all life in the sea.”
On the Horizon
Plans are currently underway for Wyland to sculpt a series of 100 monumental marine life public fountains to be located in very strategic places. He will reconnect with Greenpeace and with other environmental groups who supported him over the years. He also offers his support to organizations that care for marine mammals in captivity. He considers the invitation to participate on the Jacques Cousteau Society expeditions a great honor. Being influenced by Jacque Cousteau over 27 years ago, Wyland is overjoyed to find himself one of the team, along with some of the original scientists and Pierre Cousteau, son of Jacques.
“I believe it is most important to put our environment on the front burner of awareness in the 21st century,” he said. “We have to realize the long-term consequences of how our actions will affect the planet in the next 100 years. If the whales live, we live.”
Information Resources: Whale Tales, Wyland; www.wyland.com , Wyland’s mother Darlene and Aunt Vicki.
The Wyland Foundation presents “Six Sea Savers”
Vision: Promote, respect & protect our precious resources
1. Educate yourself through books, school projects, the Internet and other sources. Use your ocean knowledge to help educate others through your schools and community groups.
2. Recycle all recyclable materials. If your home or office does not currently have a recycling program, take the initiative and set one up. Support companies that recycle and use environmentally-friendly processes.
3. Each time you go to the beach, make a point of leaving it cleaner than it was when you got there, even if it’s not your trash.
4. Clean up trash from gutters and drainage ditches that will otherwise end up in the ocean.
5. Conserve water. Use low-flow shower heads and toilets and be conservative with things like watering the lawn and washing the car.
6. Support your local environmental organization. Get involved with beach clean-ups, fund raisers and educational activities that help keep our ocean clean.
Please visit www.Wyland.com or send your request/donation to: Wyland Foundation, P.O. Box 1839, Laguna Beach CA 92651
Return to the March/April Index page