By Steeve Creech

Astronauts who’ve seen the earth from space describe the sight as magical, a blue and white world painted by water. Closer to home, the artist known as Wyland has been drawing attention to the beauty of our water planet for the last two decades. His gigantic murals of aquatic life have inspired millions of people around the world to cherish the health of our oceans—and the vast diversity of life within.

By Steve Creech

Photo/Courtesy Wyland
Wyland find his inspiration in the creatures he encounters while diving. Here, he makes friends with a friendly Hawksbill Turtle off Hawaii.
It’s probably safe to say that no one else in the world of marine art has had quite the effect of Wyland. The 44-year-old artist has been compared to a Johnny Appleseed, covering the land with his oceans and whales. Indeed, Wyland is far from the reluctant “artiste,” the guy who works for months in the studio, quietly hands over his art, then returns to his seclusion. In a relatively short time he has established himself as the world’s premier marine life artist (USA Today referred to him as a “marine Michelangelo”) and has taken his environmental message around the world.

His high-profile generates the kind of attention endangered marine animals such as Pacific otters, manatees and humpback whales need to insure their survival. Now thousands of people routinely show up to watch as Wyland conjures images of sea life across the side 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.

One of Wyland’s newest works, this was painted after a memorable encounter with Humpback Whales off Hawaii.
“He reminds me of the days of barnstorming and circuses coming to town,” says fellow muralist Ken Twitchell. “He’s like a daredevil going over Niagara Falls in a barrel or walking a tightrope between skyscrapers. He brings back a spirit that’s been somehow missing, a uniquely American celebration of freedom and possibilities.”

WYLAND’S EARLY ABILITY TO DRAW was quickly recognized. His talent was nurtured by his mother Darlene and his schoolteachers, who encouraged him to follow his aspirations of becoming an artist. The Detroit, Michigan, native 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 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.”

Wyland’s “Dolphin Vision”.
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. “It used to be that the only marine art you’d see were images of man’s conquest of the sea,” Wyland says. “You’d 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.”

The 86 murals he has completed so far are now seen by an estimated one billion people annually in the United States, Canada, Mexico, Australia, Europe, New Zealand and Japan. And on May 4, 1992, the Guinness Book of World Records acknowledged him as the creator of the world’s biggest mural—a 1,280-foot–long painting around the Long Beach Sports Arena in California. The three-acre work of art required 7,000 gallons of paint and six weeks to complete.

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.

“Dolphin Heaven”.
“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 he’s 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 in 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 a collaboration with nature and art.”

That focus on naturalistic art has been instrumental in spreading Wyland’s environmental message. In 1998, his non-profit Wyland Foundation rolled out the Wyland Ocean Challenge of America, an ambitious ocean curriculum designed to reach 67 million students at more than 120,000 public and private schools across the nation. That same year the United Nations proclaimed him the official artist for the 1998 International Year of the Ocean.

Plans are currently underway for Wyland to sculpt a series of 100 monumental marine life public fountains. 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, in 2001. 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.”