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

Into Wyland's world

Reader poll: What is your opinion of marine artist Wyland?
 •  Wyland chats on close encounters, passion for ocean

By Catherine E. Toth
Advertiser Staff Writer

Portait of the artist as an hotelier: The muralist at Wyland Waikiki, his whale-laden boutique hotel scheduled to open next month.

JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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At Borders Ward Centre: Wyland is signing his new book “Hold Your Water: 68 Things You Need to Know to Keep Our Planet Blue” (Andrews McMeel Publishing, $9.95) at 2 p.m. today.

In Waikïkï: In July the new Wyland Waikiki boutique hotel will open.

On Animal Planet: A new show called “Wyland: A Brush With Giants” will air in November.

On tour: The Wyland Clean Water Tour, an ongoing series of educational exhibits, is currently touring aquariums and zoos around the country.

On the Web: Visit his sites, www.wyland.com and www.wylandfoundation.org.

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Wyland has painted 93 public murals — or "Whaling Walls" — since 1981 and is determined to reach 100. With any luck, he'll get to paint his 100th directly on the Great Wall of China.


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Wyland sits in one of the 404 rooms at the new boutique hotel Wyland Waikiki, which will be fully decorated in the style of his art.

JEFF WIDENER | The Honolulu Advertiser

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Ninety-three public murals. Forty galleries worldwide. Fourteen books and counting. Add to that 52 half-hour shows in development for PBS, a special for Animal Planet, an ocean-themed Monopoly game, a national educational tour and a 404-room boutique hotel in Waikiki scheduled to open in July.

Welcome to Wyland's world.

Before the paint dried on his first life-size mural, "Gray Whale and Calf," in Laguna Beach, Calif., in 1981, Wyland was on his way to becoming one of the most prolific and well-known artists of our time.

More than a billion people are exposed to his art every year, according to his Web site. His Ocean Challenge project with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography reaches 60 million kids worldwide.

In addition, Wyland boasts half a million collectors in more than 70 countries. His client list includes Robert Redford, Prince Charles, Paul Newman, United Nations Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Magic Johnson, Oscar De La Hoya and former Hawai'i Gov. George Ariyoshi.

The once-starving artist who couldn't even give his paintings away is now at the helm of a marine-art empire that generates $100 million in sales annually — and growing.

Not bad for a guy from Detroit who couldn't keep a day job and never saw the sea until he was 14.

"To some degree he's the quintessential 21st-century American entrepreneur," said Jim Moriarty, executive president of the Surfrider Foundation, which works with Wyland on conservation projects. "Just like with any American success story, it comes back to someone's passion, the craft and the ability to take risks. Wyland is taking a lot of risks — and he's reaping a lot of rewards. So more power to him."

But talk to any art aficionado and the word "Wyland" likely will be met with rolled eyes and off-the-record gripes about the sun-dappled dolphins and dorsal-finned dining chairs.

"I gravitate toward art that isn't readily understandable, something that makes you think, and the thing about Wyland is he doesn't make you think at all," said Mark Chittom, 36, a graphic designer, DJ and event promoter from Manoa. "It's just cheese."

Yet Wyland's creations — from oil paintings to wood tables to a line of personal checks from Deluxe Corp. — continue to lure loyal fans who, despite differences in age, race, proximity to the ocean or income, all share an adoration for marine art.


"The work he does is totally accessible to everyone," said longtime art consultant and dealer Greg Northrop of Fine Art Associates. "Everyone can understand what it is, and I think he's heavily promoted himself. ... He's bombarded the public with images so he becomes very familiar."

Wyland's work, however, isn't what serious art collectors buy, Northrop quickly added: "He's really a populist artist."

But of all the artists in the world — marine or not, populist or not — why Wyland?

"I like that he captures the spirit and peace of the animals, the wildlife, and makes you feel it as well," said Lin Murphy, 55, who recently bought a home in 'Ewa Beach with her husband. (They plan to relocate from Columbia, Md., next month.) "It just makes you feel good."

Murphy spent a recent afternoon browsing at the Wyland Galleries on Kalakaua Avenue — with the full intention of splurging.

She was considering an original oil painting — a rarity at the 3,000-square-foot gallery — of dolphins. Or maybe one of the coffee tables. Or maybe a bronze sculpture.

Murphy already owns six prints and a couple of small sculptures. Now all she needs is a large, central piece to pull her Wyland-themed home together.

The objects of her affection don't come cheap.

An original oil painting, 24 inches by 36 inches, can cost upward of $30,000. His most expensive painting at the Waikiki gallery is "The Great White Shark," completed in 1992. Framed, this published original oil — meaning, there are prints of this image available, increasing the original's value — is $375,000.

Reprints of his oils — using the giclée process — aren't easy on the wallet, either.

A 21-inch-by-36-inch reprint of his popular "Whale Sighting" painting costs about $2,600.

Then there are his bronze sculptures, a booming part of his business. The pieces — which he designs in wax and technicians create in bronze — cost anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars. The bigger the size, the bigger the price tag: a 9-foot bronze sculpture of three dolphins costs about $114,000. One of his best-sellers, the 32-inch-tall "Dolphin Dream," is nearly sold out at $4,700 apiece.

Bean counting aside, there is another side of Wyland that many people forget — or dismiss.

A self-described ocean lover, Wyland, 49 and a Cancer, is a staunch supporter of conservation and education. He founded the nonprofit Wyland Foundation to promote, protect and preserve the world's waters and marine life. The organization funds classroom programs, scholarships and life-size public marine art.

In addition, his National Clean Water Tour is in its third year, taking educational exhibits to America's zoos, aquariums and science centers. His Wyland Ocean Challenge, a free program for educators to implement marine science and conservation into their classrooms, had already reached millions of students.

And his new book, "Hold Your Water: 68 Things You Need to Know to Keep Our Planet Blue," is all about conversation.

"I want to inspire a whole generation of people to get involved and protect the quality of water," said Wyland from his Laguna Beach studio. "I believe the 20th century was a disaster and the 21st century has to be an environmental renaissance. How are we going to do that? Not by sitting around."

No, Wyland doesn't do that. He's too busy.

On his plate this year: another round of educational tours, this time to cities along the Mississippi River; securing locations for his final life-size murals; finishing up his 14th book; honing his underwater photography skills; helping design more boutique hotels; and finding more ways to distribute his work, his name, his brand worldwide.

"There's no disputing that he's done a lot in the past 25 years to raise awareness about protecting sea life. ... He's pretty generous with donating works to charity auctions, which keeps his name out there in a good way. And he's just a great schmoozer," said Cathy Lawhon of the Orange County Register, who first interviewed Wyland in 1980. "Love him or hate him, Wyland is a force of nature with more energy and enthusiasm than he gave himself credit for because he has created an artistic empire for himself."

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

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