Wall is canvas, whale is mission Artist city-hops painting murals

August 09, 1993|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

In Boston, he painted a mother humpback whale and her calf.

In New London, Conn., his subject was sperm whales.

He has featured grey whales, finback whales, pilot whales and orcas.

Now it's anyone's guess what will appear on the canvas that the environmental artist known as Wyland plans to fill over the next seven days in downtown Baltimore.

But this much is certain: It will be a whale of a production.

That's because whales are always his main subject, although the exact species is decided at the last minute.

"I never know what it's going to be until I start painting," said the millionaire artist, who uses only his family name. "I don't work from preliminary drawings or grids. I paint the ocean first, and the whales just swim into view."

Baltimore is the 11th stop on Wyland's "17 Cities in 17 Weeks" tour of the East Coast. It began in June in Portland, Maine, and will end in September in Key West, Fla. At each stop, he is painting a large outdoor mural of a life-sized whale and other marine life, typically on a building with high visibility.

The four-month tour has turned the 37-year-old Michigan native into a Christo of the Sea -- the counterpart of another one-named artist known for his elaborate, multisite installations.

Wyland said his goal in painting the "whaling walls" is to raise public consciousness about whales -- those held in captivity, as depicted in the movie "Free Willy," and those in the wild, such as the minke whales hunted by Norwegian fishermen.

He believes that to save the whales and other marine life, people must first change their attitudes and save the oceans.

"You don't expect to see whales when you're driving down the street or stuck in traffic," he said. "But if you do, it makes a tremendous impact."

Based in Laguna Beach, Calif., and well-known on the West Coast as a "maritime Michelangelo," Wyland has been painting whales since the early 1970s. He wants to paint 100 "whaling walls" around the world by the year 2011, and this tour will put him over the halfway point.

"I'm trying to get as many people involved in conservation as I can through public art," he said. "I believe that if people see the beauty in nature, they will work to preserve it before it's too late."

In Baltimore, Wyland's canvas will be the Lee Electric Co. building at the northwest corner of Hamburg and Russell streets -- a one-story building that is just a long fly ball away from Oriole Park at Camden Yards.

He plans to paint the east side, a 20-foot-high by 235-foot-long wall visible to anyone driving into or out of the city along Russell Street.

"We really had no plans for the wall, and we thought it was a great idea," said Lee Electric owner Bernie Langeluttig. "We're all wondering how he's going to handle it."

Work 'exquisite'

Baltimoreans "are going to see something more beautiful than they've ever seen," said Estelle Hayden, a Ruxton resident who is helping coordinate the artist's project in Baltimore. "His work is just exquisite."

Ms. Hayden said she watched Wyland paint a mural two weeks ago in Wilmington, Del., and was amazed. "You can just see the water dripping off the whale as it comes out of the water," she said. "He works particularly hard on the eyes. He thinks you can see the animal's soul in its eyes."

The painting will begin tomorrow and continue through the week, with a dedication next Monday. Wyland receives no pay for his murals, although he does sell his paintings and books while on site.

He travels with a crew of 14 and uses exterior acrylic latex paint, applied with a spray gun. He also welcomes help from volunteers, who perform such tasks as mixing paint and erecting scaffolds.

At most stops this summer, thousands of people have turned out each day to watch him paint or help out. Some volunteers follow him from city to city.

"It's almost like the Deadheads," the artist quipped, referring to the diehard fans who follow the Grateful Dead rock group from city to city. "But it's the whaleheads."

He particularly hopes to reach the children.

"I try to encourage them to stay in the path of consciousness, instead of convenience. If even one of these kids is inspired to grow up and be another Jacques Cousteau, it will be worth it."

Wyland said his one regret about the Baltimore visit is that he didn't get permission to paint a mural on the National Aquarium in Baltimore. He said he even picked out a spot for a mural -- a concrete wall on the north side of the building on Pier 3 -- but was turned down.

"What could be more appropriate than for the National Aquarium to have one of my marine murals?" he asked. "It would be the perfect whaling wall."

Request to mayor

The aquarium's deputy executive director, David Pittenger, said any changes to the city-owned building must be reviewed and approved in advance by the city's Architectural Review Board, and it was not possible to complete the review process in time to meet Wyland's tour schedule.

"His work is wonderful, and he's very popular. I'm taking my own kids to see him. But we just couldn't give him a quick answer," Mr. Pittenger said.

Wyland vowed to pursue the idea of painting a mural on the aquarium and said he'll make a formal request to Mayor Kurt L. Schmoke this week. He said he'd have time to paint it after finishing the Lee Electric mural, or he could come back once the East Coast tour is over.

"I'm not giving up," he said. "I've already painted the wall in my mind. It's beautiful."

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