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Marine Muralist Wyland Ties Art to Activism


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This is American Profiles, VOA's weekly spotlight on Americans who have made a difference in how we think, live and act. Rosanne Skirble features Wyland, an artist and activist whose monumental murals have helped promote ocean conservation and marine life protection efforts.

He is known by a single name: Wyland. He was born in 1956 and grew up in Detroit, the automotive capital of the United States. But it was his hero, ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau - whose adventures Wyland watched on television during the 1960s and '70s - that inspired him as a boy.

"He had such a passion for the ocean that he instilled in a whole generation of people like myself," Wyland says.

Wyland saw the ocean for the first time on a family vacation to California when he was 14 years old.

"I remember seeing the Pacific Ocean in Laguna Beach and just immersed myself in it," he says. "It felt like I was being reborn."

Ironically, when he emerged, a huge gray whale spouted right in front of him. He says the sight of it changed his life.

Ten years after that first whale encounter, Wyland moved to Laguna Beach and struggled to make his living as an artist.

"I felt that if I created good art, good things would happen," he says.

And Wyland thought big. In 1981 he painted his first life-size whale on the wall of the Hotel Laguna parking lot. The mural stopped traffic and helped launch Wyland's career as a marine artist and advocate for whales and their habitat.

"As the environmental movement grew, so did the appreciation of my art, and eventually I became very successful," he says.

When Wyland was 25, he made a 30-year promise to himself. He would paint 100 marine murals in cities across the globe. He finished the "Whaling Walls" this year, three years ahead of schedule.

His financial success from paintings, prints, sculptures and a market of marine-inspired products led him to create the Wyland Foundation to support education and conservation projects. He did the murals for free, recruiting volunteers and many children to work with him.

"If we can inspire these kids to be better stewards," he says, "then we have a real chance of creating that sea change in the next 10 years and protecting the [ocean] beauty that we still have."

For his 100th and final "Whaling Wall," 7,000 children from 110 countries joined him in Beijing during the 2008 Summer Olympics.

They painted aquatic art on canvas panels stretching nearly a kilometer through a city park. "You couldn't put into words how much it meant to me to pass my art and knowledge and inspiration on to the next generation," he says.

Wyland brought some of that art home to display to passersby on the National Mall in Washington, where he had come recently to paint with area school children.

Out on her lunch break, Cynthia McArthur says the murals give her hope for the future.

"I think that it helps reawaken those of us who are used to 'business as usual' to see in such a creative and energetic way how valuable oceans are and the creatures there," she says.

Wyland continues to explore the undersea world. He loves to swim with whales and dolphins, and he never tires of the ocean as the subject of his art. His latest long-term commitment to public art: the installation of 100 life-size marine sculptures in cities around the world.

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