Saturday, June 24, 2006 | Wyland is perhaps one of the world’s best-known artists. He’s the man behind those huge murals of whales and other sea creatures that can be seen in cities around the world and he also maintains two galleries in San Diego, one in La Jolla and one in Seaport Village.

A few years ago, the artist and environmentalist set out to create 100 of his trademark marine murals and he’s nearing that goal, having so far completed 93 murals in 12 countries. On Saturday, Wyland is at the San Diego County Fair, dedicating his latest mural – a towering portrait of a grey whale that will replace a mural he painted in 1997. The original building that mural was painted on was demolished, so the artist doesn’t count this as his 94th mural but as a replacement of the previous work. (His full name is Robert Wyland, but he digs the one-name thing.)

No matter what one thinks of his work, Wyland’s a man with a mission and an opinion on everything from Tijuana sewage to Jacques Cousteau, and we sat down to pick his brain.

We live in a key whale observation spot, with whales heading down to the Sea of Cortez, how much do you think whales are a part of San Diego’s natural ecosystem?

Whales, like us, rely on clean water and healthy oceans. Everything is connected. The gray whales, it’s critical we protect that migration path.

Whales have got a lot of threats right now. Even the threat of chasing them from town to town as they make the journey from Alaska to Baja, believe it or not, that’s even a problem because we’re pushing them off their normal migration route, which used to be to hug the shoreline, but now they’re getting pushed out farther and farther. But the greater threat is clean water in the oceans to the south. Pollution is wreaking havoc and most of the pollution starts here on land. Whales, like us, rely on clean water and a healthy ocean

How do you look at a massive building and see what it’s going to become?

Every wall is a unique canvas. I like the challenge of painting on walls because they’re not perfect canvasses; they all have different architectural shapes and texture. But I use all those elements for the mural. I see the design of the building flowing with the design that I want to paint.

Normally what I do is I paint the ocean first and that will be dictated by the size of the building, the shape and the architecture. And once the ocean and environment is there, then I imagine marine life swimming in it.

I describe it as a giant Polaroid photograph – where you will see a mass of color floating and moving. The other part that’s curious for people is how do you paint a 50-foot whale right up to the wall. I can’t really explain, but I have an out-off-body experience while I’m physically up against the wall painting, I can see the entire wall from several blocks away simultaneously. And I also refer to all the times I spent in the ocean with whales. I put all those things together at that moment as I’m creating it on the wall.

How did a guy from Detroit get interested in whales?

The Great Lakes were the ocean for me as a kid. But I dreamed about the ocean my whole life. And then it was Jacques Cousteau that really inspired me and a whole generation of people like me. I had a hundred opportunities to meet the man. Now I’m on the board of directors or the advisory board for the Cousteau Society.

You’ve had a lot of imitators, artists like Lassen and others. Do you think you created the style that you paint in, or are you something of an imitator yourself, drawing from other artists?

I’ve been doing it since 1971. So I’m the original, but every year there’s a new one. If you look really close, they’re really different, based more on the natural world and realism and art and science stuff coming together.

Does your work change your view of the world? Do you see a building and think: That’s a great place for a beluga?

I feel strongly that art plays an important role in preserving the environment. It’s such a powerful medium. I thought if I could paint a hundred public murals, I could contribute to the efforts to preserve not only whales but also oceans. Now I’ve taken it further to a global view of clean water.

Right now, I’m working with Scripps and the Birch Aquarium. I’ve had an admiration of scientists and people who knowledge of protecting water. I’ve been collaborating and working towards those goals since 1998. I’m trying to think as big as we can as Jacques Cousteau did.

The last century was an environmental disaster and there’s supposed to be an environmental renaissance in the next century. We need to see changes and the way we can achieve this is by getting people involved and by focusing on young people.

Internationally, pro-whaling countries are campaigning to re-allow the hunting of certain species. How do you feel about that?

I’m totally against it. We’ve worked so hard to protect these animals and they’re just now starting to come back. It’s ridiculous, especially with how much we know about how intelligent and critical these animals are to the balance and protecting the oceans. They’re the canaries in the coal mine. When you see dolphins getting sick and whales getting sick, you know there’s a huge problem and eventually it’ll come back to us.

We just brought back whales worldwide and we need to put pressure on Norway and Japan. I’m doing that in what I call a “gentle environmentalism” way. I’m basically getting the information to the kids and letting them take action. They’re the ones who at the end of the day are going to have the biggest impact and the biggest influence on their parents.

I need to go to Norway, I’ve done four murals in Japan. Whale watching just started up in Japan about 10 years ago and that’s a good sign, but they have a long way to go. The young Japanese, they want to protect the ocean and save the whales, so it’s just a matter of time before they wake up.

The new mural in Del Mar is a replacement of an older mural – your seventh – which was torn down. Did you recreate the older piece, or is this a completely new work?

They built a bigger, newer building. It’s a more prominent wall that can be seen from the freeway by millions of cars a year. It’s a better wall and the only deal I have with them is hey, I’ll paint it if you promise not to tear the building down.

It’s a completely new work with the spirit of the old piece. The old piece was pretty neat, but this is even more expansive.

What do you think about the water quality problems San Diego has with the Tijuana River, and what do you think we should do about it?

This is the whole point of my new book “Hold Your Water,” which is a new arts and science program about clean water conservation. Everything’s connected. It does not do us one bit of good to protect one body of water without thinking about the next.

We need to look at it globally – that every piece of water on the planet is connected to each other, every drop. It’s always about money and funding, but we need to have the political will to start with, and if we don’t invest now, in preserving our water, we’re not going to be able to afford it later.

Interview by WILL CARLESS

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