NEW LONDON — In July 1993, the artist known as Wyland painted an enormous mural depicting life-size sperm whales and dolphins on the side of a brick building on a busy downtown street.
As the years went by, the mural deteriorated and was on the verge of being whitewashed over, according to the New London Day. In 2006, the volunteer Whaling City Restoration Committee was formed to save the mural, with member David Bishop retouching the paint by hand every year through 2013.
Advancing to 2023, with no further restoration, the paint was again peeling and flaking.
But now Wyland is returning to repaint the entire work on Saturday and Sunday, April 1 and 2, beginning at around 8:30 a.m. and ending at sunset. Bleachers will be set up for spectators and the city is providing a canvas for children to paint alongside the artist.
“I always like to try to come back and take care of my walls when I can. It’s a little harder now that I’m older,” Wyland told CT Examiner. “I’m going to repaint the entire mural for New London.”
The New London mural, located on the corner Eugene O’Neill Drive and State St., was one of 17 walls that Wyland painted in 17 cities in 17 weeks in 1993. It’s also the 41st of 100 whale murals he has painted around the world – a goal he set when he first started and took 27 years to complete.
Wyland, a Detroit native, said it all began when he saw the ocean for the first time on a family trip in 1971.
“I saw the Pacific but I also saw the migration of the California gray whales. As a 14-year-old artist that made such an impression on me. I knew the whale was gonna be my muse,” he said.
He painted his first “whaling wall,” as he calls his murals, in Laguna Beach, California, in 1981. He said he wanted to use public art on a grand scale to bring attention to the plight of the oceans and the great whales.
“(The murals) are meant to be big. See, I started painting great whales on traditional size canvases and I decided immediately that I needed to paint these animals life size to really appreciate them and to have the public appreciate them. So I started to look for the sides of buildings,” he said.
As a scuba diver, Wyland said that when he’s in the ocean, he’s actually painting in his mind’s eye “all of the marine life and the reefs and the beauty I see in the ocean.”
“Then when I get up to a wall, I have all that information, and I can just create – but it’s done through a lot of science, research and a lot of diving,” he said.
On Monday afternoon, after a dedication ceremony for the newly painted mural, Mayor Michael Passero will kick off this year’s National Mayor’s Challenge for Water Conservation, an annual event in which mayors encourage residents to commit to conserving water (sign up at mywaterpledge.com).
“New London has always been honored to be one of 100 municipalities in the world to have a mural by Wyland, a renowned artist. We are beyond thrilled that Wyland has agreed to come here to make improvements to the mural,” Passero said.
Painting the mural will require two 42-foot boom lifts and many volunteers, with paint donated by Sherwin Williams, said Steve Creech, president of the Wyland Foundation and co-author with Wyland of a number of books, including “Hold Your Water: 68 Things You Need to Know to Keep Our Planet Blue.”
Creech said Wyland donates his time to support the Wyland Foundation, a nonprofit “dedicated to promoting, protecting and preserving the world’s ocean, waterways and marine life,” and encouraging environmental awareness through education, public art projects and community events.
Rich Martin, chair of the New London Cultural District, contacted the Wyland Foundation about restoring the mural, and according to a release, Wyland agreed since he was already on the East Coast for a project with the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C.
The project is funded by $275,000 in state and federal grants and an additional $35,000 in ARPA funds managed by the city’s Cultural District, according to a release.
Editor’s note: David Bishop, of Mystic, and Norm Johnson, of Pawcatuck, and volunteers from the Whaling City Restoration Committee worked to restore the mural from 2006 to 2013. A previous version of the story stated that a group from the city tried to touch up the mural without success. A photograph was also mislabeled as 1993 instead of 2013, and shows the Bishop’s work rather than the original mural. This story has been updated.