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The artist Wyland and his "whaling walls"

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In the summer before the pandemic, a worker on a scaffolding in Seattle could be seen touching up what looked like a routine paint job.

Wyland at work. / Credit: CBS News
Wyland at work. / Credit: CBS News

But then you step back …

A Wyland
A Wyland

It's called a "whaling wall." Every creature is life-size, and they look just as they would if you happened to see a pack of wild orcas at sea.

The artist's name is Wyland. "People go, 'Well, how could you paint a 110-foot whale on the side of a building? Is that hard?' I go, 'No, you know, I imagine the whale swimming across the building, and I just paint it as it goes by!'"

These whales are swimming by on the side of the Edgewater Hotel in Seattle, but Wyland's done more than a hundred other murals like this around the world.

"While I'm physically painting the whale, okay, my mind's eye is across the street at the same time."

"You can see the whole thing?" asked correspondent Tracy Smith.

"As I'm painting it. So, don't tell anybody, it's kind of an inside secret!"

But it's no secret that Wyland loves what he does. Over the past 40 years he's made a fortune selling smaller paintings and sculptures, and his work can also be seen in Wyland books, on Wyland shopping bags, the cruise ship Norwegian Bliss, and even the surfboard art for Team USA.

A sampling of Wylan's ocean art. / Credit: CBS News
A sampling of Wylan's ocean art. / Credit: CBS News

It seems his goal is to turn the world into one giant aquatic gallery – this from a guy who once could only dream about seeing the sea.

Born in Detroit, Robert Wyland never wanted to do anything but make art for a living, and while on a family vacation in California, he had a life-changing moment at the beach: "I came out and I couldn't believe my eyes – these two grey whales just broke the surface, spouting. I mean, that was like a miracle."

The artist Wyland. / Credit: CBS News
The artist Wyland. / Credit: CBS News

A few years later, he packed his paintbrushes and moved to California, where he learned the meaning of the phrase "starving artist." It got so bad that for a time he was living on a single Snickers bar a day.

Smith asked, "You'd get a Snickers bar and portion it out?"

"Cut it in threes – breakfast, lunch, and dinner!" he replied.

But he kept at it, painting the sea creatures that were, for him, a neverending source of inspiration.

Wyland's an avid scuba diver, and in 2007 he invited Smith along on a dive off the Florida Keys. "I feel blessed and lucky," Wyland said then, "that I can dive, I can get in the water, I see great animals, and see this beauty, and then all I have to do it is put it up on the wall for people to enjoy. You can choose not to go into an art gallery or museum, but you can't ignore a giant public mural."

Watch Tracy Smith's 2007 "Early Show" report on the artist Wyland:

But his big canvases can also be big targets: he's been accused of commercialism, and major art museums have all but ignored him.

Smith asked, "Do you listen to the critics and those people, those voices?"

"Well, I don't paint for the critics; I paint for the people," he said. "I love people. I mean, I'm collected by almost a million people in all 50 states and a hundred countries around the world. Critics? I can't even spell 'critic'!"

But Wyland can spell "success" – and he counts among his fans some very big names, including Paul Newman, who showed up one of his book-signings. "I look up and I go, 'Holy – there's Cool Hand Luke,' right?"

"He waited in line?" asked Smith.

"He waited in line to get a book signed, okay? And so, he goes, 'Hey, you're younger than I thought.' I go, 'Wow, so are you!'"

For the record, Wyland himself is now 65, still young enough to climb a scaffold like he did back in 2019 in Seattle.

Restoring that mural took him three days; it might have been quicker if he hadn't let Smith help.

Correspondent Tracy Smith helps out on the restoration of a Wyland mural.  / Credit: CBS News
Correspondent Tracy Smith helps out on the restoration of a Wyland mural. / Credit: CBS News

It turns out that Wyland, through his non-profit Wyland Foundation, does all these whaling walls for free. In a way, each mural is kind of a public love letter – to the ocean, and to the creatures that will always be larger-than-life.

Smith asked, "Do you feel like you have everything?"

"I have everything," he said. "I'm so grateful. I get up every day and I walk out there with my coffee and I look at that ocean and I just go, 'Wow.' I have no idea how this happened, but man, am I happy it did!"

For more info:

wyland.comWyland FoundationList of Wyland "Whaling Walls" (Wikipedia)Edgewater Hotel, Seattle

Story produced by John D'Amelio. Editor: Henry Ledesma.

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