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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Sunday, May 28, 2006

Wyland chats on close encounters, passion for ocean

 •  Into Wyland's world

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer

Wyland in his Oregon studio. Seeing a pair of whales in the Pacific Ocean at age 14 spurred a lifelong love of the sea, he says.


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Like it or not, marine artist Wyland is one of the most prolific and well-known artists of our time. Here's what he has to say about his life, his career and his love for all things oceanic.

Q. It's been a busy year for you. What have you been up to?

A. This was an epic year, and we did lots of good stuff. I just got back from the Sea of Cortez, where we were filming gray whales and I got to swim with the six of the nine that were there. I call it the luck of the whale.

Q. Was that for your upcoming special with Animal Planet, "Wyland: A Brush With Giants"?

A. Yeah. I like the title. They came up with that.

Q. What was the experience like?

A. Just to be in the company of whales is awesome. Those are special moments. There was this pod of about 70 sperm whales with big jaws full of teeth. The Moby Dicks, I call them. I counted 70 of them. There were three scientists on board ... and they had never seen this many sperm whales. That was really neat.

Q. How did your love for marine life start?

A. I grew up in Michigan, far away from the sea. But Jacques Cousteau was a hero to me. I watched his show religiously on Sunday. My aunt lived in Covina (Calif.), and when I was 14 years old I went to visit her, and I saw the Pacific Ocean for the first time. It was winter, and it was almost freezing. No one was in the water. I ran out there like it was bath water. It was fine for me. As soon as I came up to my waist in the water, I saw two (gray whales) right in front of me. It was in slow motion. I can still see it in my mind's eye. Ten years later I painted (the mural) "Gray Whale and Calf." That was my very first one that I painted life-size.

Q. Before you started these life-size murals, what were you doing as an artist?

A. Before that, I was doing traditional-size canvases. They weren't that great, either. I don't know. I just say I was in the right place at the right time for the moment that changed my life.

Q. How did that visit to Covina change your life?

A. I really became passionate about the ocean. I wanted to learn more about whales, and started diving in libraries. I wanted to get back out there (to California), so eventually after two years of art school, I left ... I just went there to see what would happen.

Q. That was back in the early '70s. What was the art scene like in Laguna Beach, Calif., then?

A. Ironically, my hobby and my career collided. As the environmental movement began in the '70s, I was strategically in the right place at the right time. As the appreciation of the environment grew, so did the appreciation of my art. And so did the message of my art ... It turns out that art can be an important medium for raising awareness and educating. I've been using it to raise public awareness by painting public murals and by letting people see the beauty of what I see when I'm diving with these aquatic animals I love.

Q. Did you ever think your "hobby" would turn into a multimillion-dollar business?

A. If you think about it, the chances of me actually making a career out of environmental art was slim to none, but I just kept at it. You don't get into art to be successful. You do it because it's your passion and your love. I always say it's a lifestyle, what I have ... I believe art can play an important role in protecting the environment, and it has ... It's really taken off. We've created a worldwide brand. You don't see it coming. It happens one day at a time, but it's been such a fun journey. We have fun, and that fun is contagious.

Q. Why did you move from Laguna Beach to Lahaina, Maui, in 1979?

A. I moved specifically to paint and swim with the humpback whales. I had a studio loft right across from the banyan tree on Front Street. I think it's a hairdresser shop now. It was really a bohemian-type situation. I shared a bathroom with the Greenpeace group. There was no shower. Luckily, there was a dive shop downstairs that had a hose. Talk about dignity. I had to go downstairs in board shorts every morning and shower. Those were humble beginnings.

Q. How did you get the idea of painting public murals?

A. That's a special moment, really. There was a call to save the whales, and that resonated with me. I thought, 'What can I do to help save the whales?' If I could paint life-size whales in public places, maybe people would become more aware and sensitive to them and learn about whales and their habitat. It took three years to get permission to get the first wall. The city of Laguna didn't get it, even though (it) had an international art colony. But I didn't give up. I had to change locations, but they finally let me paint my first wall. It only took 30 days because I had rented scaffolding for 30 days, so I timed it. I used every penny I had for scaffolding. I always say when you work for free, you gotta work fast.

Q. Why the goal of 100 murals?

A. The challenge became part of the art. Everybody said, 'This guy's not serious. He's not going to paint 100 walls.' But I am. If I say I'm going to do something, I'll put my head down and do it. If I feel strongly that something will happen, I just don't give up.

Q. Do you think the Wyland imitators are a testament to your success? Is it flattering?

A. When I started out, there weren't any (marine artists). There was zip. Now there's a whole genre, and a lot of imitators saying they were the first. I wasn't the first, either there was art like this in the 12th century but my style is very unique, very scientific, and more importantly, very soulful and spiritual. I capture a sense of the spirit of the whales and animals. The eyes are my signature. It's all in the eyes ... When you look closer (at the work of imitators), it's not close. It's the same subject, but that's where (the similarities) end. I don't even really think about it. By the time they figure out what I'm doing, I'm on to the next thing. When you get where I am, you're where I was. There will always be imitators, that's what I say.

Q. How do you respond to the critics who think your work is too literal, that you're too populist?

A. I haven't been hearing much from them lately. Maybe they've got better things to do. Any new art is criticized, every art form has its critics, especially if it's successful. But that's all right. I would encourage them to get a paintbrush and try to do better. I don't paint for the critics.

Reach Catherine E. Toth at ctoth@honoluluadvertiser.com.