November 30, 2006

Renowned Artist to Paint Marine Life on Keys’ Gateway

By Cammy Clark

KEY LARGO -- For 18 years, a lovely green mermaid greeted visitors to the Florida Keys at mile marker 99.2. But sun, rain and time took their toll on her home -- a four-story cement block building in the median of U.S. 1.

A few months ago the creature disappeared under a fresh coat of yellow paint.

"I got a lot of calls. Even [city] commissioners wanted to know what happened to the mural of the mermaid," building owner Michael Denault said.

One call came from none other than Wyland, the environmental artist well known for his murals of whales. He wanted to paint his last U.S. mural on the retail building. Denault readily agreed.

"I'm stoked. This is the gateway to the Keys and I'm going to paint it," Wyland said recently as he surveyed the 7,500 square feet of wall space that wraps around the building, which houses a Penske truck rental.

"I remember the guy [Jim Lukmeir] who painted the mermaid in 1988," he said. "I have painted mermaids, but I want this mural to pretty much be a realistic reflection of the Florida Keys."

The marine life mural will be the 95th of Wyland's massive project of 100 murals that he began in 1981 in Laguna Beach, Calif., when he was then a self-proclaimed "starving artist."

He has grand ambitions for his 100th and final mural, to be called "Hands Across the Oceans," and planned to coincide with the Summer Olympic Games in Beijing in 2008.

Wyland beams about his big plans to have children from each of the United Nations' member countries work on the mural. But he concedes he's struggling to get Chinese authorities to endorse his vision: painting the project on the sacred Great Wall of China.

For the energetic Detroit native, who first became fascinated with the sea by watching Jacques Cousteau specials, it was much easier to get permission to paint Denault's 50-year-old retail building.


So what will mural No. 95 look like?

"I don't really know what it's going to be until I paint it," said Wyland. "I'll paint the ocean first, then paint the coral reef and then imagine animals swimming in it."

A few minutes later, he noticed a flock of pelicans flying in the distance.

"I never know where I'll get my inspiration, but if I saw those pelicans while I'm painting, I could see me wrapping them around the building as the Key Largo Air Force."

He said he never sketches his murals first. He'll paint entirely from memory what he has seen during his dives in the Keys -- including spots near his Gulf-side home in Islamorada that he bought four years ago after seeing a manatee swimming with her calf.

Using about 1,000 gallons of paint, he will employ an arsenal of rollers, brushes, spray guns and sponges to depict coral reefs, fishes, turtles, dolphins and even a stingray in honor of the late Steve Irwin, the TV personality and conservationist who died after being stung by a ray off Australia's north coast in September.

"Steve would be the first to want no harm to come to stingrays," Wyland said. "But if you want to see what the mural will look like, you've got to come watch."

When the 50-year-old with sea life tattooed on his left arm paints a mural, it is not a secretive affair. Wyland invites the entire community.

This project will begin Feb. 1 and end Feb. 12, with his friend Jimmy Buffett getting an invite to help dedicate the finished artwork. Wyland said he wants well-known environmental artist Guy Harvey to paint a shark on the mural.

Over the 12 days, Wyland will teach local children how to paint creatures under the sea. Each day he will "let them loose" to create their own 20-foot murals.

"My focus is always with the young people, kids," he said. "Through art we can inspire the next generation to become involved in clean water and healthy oceans.

"When kids grab onto nature and have it in their heart, they never let go of it."


Wyland has sold individual paintings for more than $35,000.

In South Florida, he's painted three murals in Marathon, including one on the Big K-Mart, as well as murals at the former Burdines store in downtown Miami and the Waterfront Market in Key West. Although not part of the 100-mural collection, he also painted a Save the Manatees piece at Miami International Airport.

Wyland smiles while explaining the bigger plans he has for the Key Largo mural program, his educational work to reach children across the United States, his new TV show on Animal Planet, his ambitions to create 100 sculptures in 100 cities over the next 25 years, and the publication of his 14th book: Hold your Water! 68 Things You Need to Know to Keep Our Planet Blue.

He has amassed a fortune with an international branding of his artwork that has been panned by many critics but is treasured by the masses. His work spans the globe, from New Zealand to Japan to Palau.

Between now and February, Wyland plans to dive the local waters and take in the underwater view. "I like to sit at the bottom, 70 feet down, and watch the light paint the coral reef," he said. "I take it all in my mind's eye and then put it up on the wall."