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Cleveland Lakefront Whale Mural Due for a Facelift

22 years of rain, snow and highway dirt have taken their toll [David C. Barnett / ideastream]

Since 1997, a mural of whales and dolphins has caught the eyes of many commuters traveling the east shoreway, just outside of downtown Cleveland. This life-sized work is one of a hundred that environmental artist Robert Wyland painted in cities around the world.  Professionally known by his last name, Wyland is back in Cleveland this week to announce plans for a facelift of the mural. The artist’s interest in painting monumental creatures came at an early age.

“I’ve actually been painting since I was four or five years old,” Wyland said.  “I used to paint on the back headboard of my parents’ bed, so I wouldn’t get caught painting on the wall.  I used to do dinosaurs, Jurassic scenes.” 

Wyland cited ocean explorer and conservationist Jacques Cousteau as an early hero. He added that the infamous Cuyahoga River fire had a deep resonance for him, and the 50th anniversary is the occasion for fixing the mural.  

“You know, I heard about that back when I was a kid in 1969, and that really woke-up myself and a generation about what we’re doing to our water, what we’re doing to our environment,” he said.  “I just decided I would be an environmental artist and try to use my art to bring the conservation message, and I’ve been doing that my whole life.”

Wyland's first whale wall in Laguna Beach, California [photo: Wyland Foundation]

In 1981, Wyland painted the life-sized image of a grey whale and its calf on the side of a building in Laguna Beach, California.  It began a nearly 30-year quest to paint 100 whale walls around the globe.  He likes going back to touch-up his whale walls, and, after three decades, he’s getting a lot of requests.

“I’ve been touching up quite a few lately,” Wyland said. “If I can’t do it, I encourage local artists and painters to get together to try and save as many of these murals as I can.”

The surface is dirty and dull, and the corrugated steel surface has rust spots [David C. Barnett / ideastream]

Cleveland was the 75 th mural in the series.  You might think that Wyland would have had the process down to a science by that point, but the Cleveland Public Power site came with its own set of challenges.

“When I saw that wall, it was corrugated steel.  I knew it was going to be twice as hard.  It was like painting two or three times the area, but I liked the texture,” he said.  “The mayor at the time was Michael White.  He said: ‘Do the whole thing.’  But, I only had six days, so I could only do the three walls.” 

Wyland did all of the original mural painting himself, and said he never came to any of these monumental paintings with a sketch or plan.  The images come from sights he’s seen while deep-sea diving, and he recalled getting strange looks from spectators when he was here 22 years ago.

The Cleveland mural looked a lot brighter after it was freshly painted in 1997 [photo: Wyland Foundation]

“People were saying, ‘Why would you paint a whale in Cleveland?’  Well, really, we have one ocean and we have one water planet, and what we do in one place impacts the next.  Everybody lives upstream from somebody else,” he said.

Wyland started a foundation in 1993 to help coordinate a number of conservation programs he’s involved with.  Wyland Foundation president Steve Creech said the city won't pay anything for the retouching work on the Cleveland mural, which will cost an estimated $30,000.  The foundation is looking for in-kind support for paint, boom lifts and other equipment.  Wyland is donating his labor for the project.

Each one of the 100 murals is duly documented on the foundation website, but he’s involved with a number of other creative endeavors. The artist also maintains a personal site that markets an assortment of paintings, sculptures, and jewelry, plus ball caps and hoodies.  Some of Wyland’s critics argue that he’s more interested in merchandising than pure art.

Wyland working on wall #85 in Honolulu. He does all the painting, freehand. "I just wing it." [photo: Wyland Foundation]

“I handed off all that swag to the Wyland Foundation,” he said.  “100% of that goes to support our programs. You know, when you’re an artist, you have to do what you’re going to do to make a living and be successful, so that you can work on projects that are important to you. I just wanted people to make the connection about how the lakes are critical to the health of the planet and the ocean.

David C. Barnett was a senior arts & culture reporter for Ideastream Public Media. He retired in October 2022.