When the Cuyahoga River caught on fire 50 years ago, not only did it serve as a catalyst for national environmental change, the blaze also sparked a lifelong passion for water conservation in artist Wyland.
“As a young artist growing up, I heard about this river in Cleveland catching on fire, and it pissed me off,” Wyland says. “That was a big catalyst for me.”
He went on to create 101 Wyland Whale Wall murals around the world. In 1997, he created the 32,000-square-foot “Song of Whales” mural on the Cleveland Public Power building, 5251 North Marginal Road, off Interstate 90—his 75th mural in the series.
Today, Wednesday, Oct. 2, Wyland returns to Cleveland to touch up the now-faded mural and tour his mission to educate people, especially students, on the importance of water conservation through the Wyland Foundation, a nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting, protecting, and preserving the world’s ocean, waterways, and marine life. The foundation encourages environmental awareness through community events, education programs, and public art projects.
The West Creek Conservancy helped bring Wyland to Cleveland, along with support from the Cleveland Water Department, National Van Lines, PPG Paints, Cleveland Public Power, United Rentals, and Color Renovation painters.
Wyland, 63, who will be working on the mural through Saturday, Oct. 5, was in Cleveland in April for Wyland Foundation work as part of West Creek’s Xtinguish Celebration and decided to restore “Song of Whales” to once again raise awareness. He says Oct. 2 that he plans to add a 70-foot breeching humpback to the original design as well.
“It’s not as easy as it was 22 [years ago], but it was time for it to get a facelift,” he says. “It was getting pretty beat up by the elements and it’s painted on corrugated steel. I might add some other elements—you’ll have to come out and see.” (As with all of Wyland’s murals, volunteers are always encouraged to come out and help with the project.)
Perhaps Wyland’s favorite question he hears is “why whales?” when places like Lake Erie don’t have them. “I want people to ask questions like that,” he says. “Our lakes, rivers, streams, everything connects to the heart of our planet—our oceans.”
Wyland also returned to Cleveland in 2016 to do some storm repairs to the mural. This year, he completed his 101st mural on the Edgewater Hotel in Seattle. To help spread Wyland’s conservation message, rock band Pearl Jam’s lead vocalist Eddie Vedder helped Wyland paint. “Eddie Vedder jumped on the scaffolding and painted some orcas,” he says. “The guy can handle a spray gun.”
Wyland grew up in Detroit and now divides his times between Laguna Beach, California; the North shores of Hawaii, and the Florida Keys. He says that as a water sign (he’s a cancer), it’s only natural for him to spread the message of water conservation.
He focuses on educating children on his cause—traveling the country with the foundation’s 1,000-square-foot Mobile Learning unit. He’s worked with more than one million kids since he launched the program in 2008.
“I want to share my knowledge of conservation with our youth,” Wyland says. “It really plants the seeds, and we hope to give them everything we can to go forward and spread the message.”
Wyland started the National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation, which led to a partnership with the United Nations to start the Wyland World Water Pledge. “One drop of water really recycles around the globe,” he says.
Steve Creech, Wyland Foundation president, says they will continue to the use the Wyland whale murals to spread their message as they continue to roll out educational and conservation programs. “We’re trying to get people to understand we all live upstream from someone else, or downstream from someone else,” he says.
Wyland will be working on the mural, which was first dedicated in1997 by then-Cleveland Mayor Michael White, this week through Saturday. A rededication ceremony is planned for 5 p.m. Friday, Oct. 4, with Cleveland Mayor Frank Jackson. Peter Bode, West Creek’s central Lake Erie project manager, will also speak at the event.