Wyland's Art Imitates Nature

By Zuzana Prochazka

Is Wyland the world's most prolific marine artist?

Portrait of marine artist Wyland

When I was a kid, I wanted to be Jacques Cousteau," says Wyland, the artist responsible for creating the giant Whaling Wall murals, those famous life-sized whale and marine paintings on the sides of buildings in many American and foreign cities. "Maybe that's why I'm contemplating naming my current boat, a Proline 26, Wylypso (after Cousteau's Calypso). It kind of has a ring to it."

Wyland — his first name is Robert, but he doesn't use it — was born in Michigan, and he didn't see the ocean until he visited his aunt in Southern California as a teenager. From the bluffs of Laguna Beach he saw two migrating whales, and these, he says, guided him to his future. Those same two whales appeared on his first whale wall, a huge mural on the side of a Laguna Beach building. That was the first of 100 Wyland walls painted in the last 30 years. The murals are found in 79 cities in 17 countries. "Boaters can look up from a lot of California harbors, such as Redondo or Long Beach, and see one of my walls," he says. But don't ask him to pick his favorite. "They're like my kids, so I can't have a favorite."

The Journey Continues

A self-described artist since the age of 4, he says he's never had to get a "real" job because his talent and prolific painting have let him build a hugely successful career. While he cites Michelangelo, Van Gogh, Matisse, Picasso, and Dali as his artistic influences, he credits his uncle, Jerry, an amateur artist, as his inspiration, mentor, and biggest cheerleader.

That encouragement and drive has helped him to become the most versatile working marine artist in the business. In addition to his murals, he's produced hundreds of pieces of art for private collections around the world; has numerous books to his credit, including The Art of Wyland, which has sold 1.2 million copies; and wrote the music for an album called "Blues Planet". He's been named to the International Scuba Diving Hall of Fame, and he's hosted several television programs, including "Wyland's Ocean World" on Animal Planet, and "Wyland's Art Studio," a series on public television. He's also a master sculptor. But he says his biggest passion is raising awareness of global conservation issues and protecting the environment, and he knows he's found the right audience in the boating community. "Boaters see firsthand what's happening to the world's oceans," he says, "and they put their money where their mouths are to help."

In 1993, he created the nonprofit Wyland Foundation for environmental outreach, an organization that focuses on legacy programs, including water conservation and art programs for children. In 2008, he painted his 100th marine-life wall in China. It was a 24,000-square-foot, half-mile-long series of murals, completed with the help of students from 110 countries. "I worked with those kids for six weeks straight in Beijing," he says.

He spends his spare time on or near the water in California, Hawaii, and Florida. But his precious boating time now is scarce because he's recently established another goal: to create 100 sculpture installations in the next 25 years. The first one is slated for China, and he has about 12 others already designed. The first giant piece will be an imposing, four-story tall paddlefish. "It's so big!" he says. "It really forces you to look at this animal in a whole new way." 

— Published: June/July 2015

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