Wyland returning to New London to restore downtown mural
New London ― Thirty years after he first stepped foot in the city, environmental artist Robert Wyland is coming back in April.
Within a decade after he first graced the city with his 175-foot-long by 35-foot-high mural of sperm whales and dolphins, his work began to deteriorate. Though the community tried to salvage the work, it has not stood the test of time.
“It’s really been years since we’ve been able to brag that we have a Wyland mural in our city,” Mayor Michael Passero said Friday. “It’s a dream come true, really.”
Rich Martin, chairman of the state-designated New London Cultural District, after seeing the state of the mural for the last 20 years, decided it was time to fix it. So, Martin got in touch with Wyland’s foundation, based in California, to gauge interest in a refresh of the “Great Sperm Whales” mural.
The timing of the inquiry could not have been better as the artist, who goes by “Wyland,” was scheduling work for the Smithsonian Institution in Washington. He was able to fit in a return to New London in April while he’s on the East Cost.
“We’re excited to have Wyland back to our city for the 30th anniversary of his mural's initial installation,” Martin said in a news release.
“We never would’ve imagined he would come back and repaint it,” Felix Reyes, the city’s director of economic development and planning, said Sunday.
Wyland has also selected New London as the site for his announcement of the five winning cities, based on population sizes, in the 2023 Wyland National Mayor’s Challenge. The competition challenges mayors to get the largest number of residents signing a commitment to change habits that will conserve water and reduce harmful runoff.
The announcement is usually made in a large city, but New London will be the first small city to get that recognition.
In order for the city to better preserve the mural this time around, the surface of the wall is set to be repaired. Passero said stucco ― a thin finish coat made of cement, lime, sand and water ― will go on top of the current wall on the building owned by city resident Bill Cornish, at the corner of Eugene O’Neill Drive and State Street.
A $275,000 grant from the state Department of Economic and Community Development, first announced last April, will fund the project. This includes enclosed and heated scaffolding for winter masonry work on the wall, all paint and equipment, and a $25,000 donation to the Wyland Foundation. No city funds will be used for the project.
Wyland donates his time to paint the murals as a way to bring awareness to his foundation, which is supported by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, National League of Cities, United Nations Environment Programme, U.S. Forest Service and the White House Council for Environmental Quality, among other businesses, foundations, and organizations.
Reyes said this is one of the many projects the grant funding will be contributing to in the city. He called the arts and culture the “driving force for downtown” in the city, which is the second recognized cultural district in the state.
“This time we’re investing more in better material and making sure the wall is suited and fit to make sure the mural can last another 30 years,” Reyes said.
Passero called Wyland “such an important artist” and said the city is going to “make a big deal” out of the artist’s return. He said the city will set up a viewing area across the street with bleachers so passersby can watch Wyland at work. And, as it did in 1993, the city will host a reception party as well.
As in his first visit to the city, Wyland is expected to engage with local artists to lend helping hands.
“Just the creation of the mural, were going to take advantage of that as a tourist attraction,” Passero said.
Back in 1993
With a quick look through The Day’s archives, one can find photos of a 36-year-old Wyland first stepping foot in the Whaling City in April 1993.
"I'm already imagining the whales swimming across the wall," the Detroit native said at the time, prior to painting a family of life-sized sperm whales.
He said he hoped his work inspired the same awe in others, children especially, as they do in him.
"If we can inspire those guys, we've got a chance to save not only the whales, but the ocean,“ Wyland said.
In his first go-around, Wyland spent a week in each of the 17 cities he painted murals in along the East Coast, entirely at his own expense. After he finished his first mural in California in 1981, he vowed to paint a whale mural in all 50 states.
New London began its search for volunteers to work five-hour shifts alongside Wyland, mostly securing the area and mixing paints, in June of that year. The city was looking for 80 volunteers and got 50 responses in the first two days.
Wyland completed his work in a five-day span, starting on Tuesday, July 6, and was finished by Saturday, July 10. He even celebrated his birthday in the city on July 9.
On Monday, July 12, the mural was signed and dedicated.
“I only ask one thing,” the artist said at the dedication. “I get visiting rights. Can I come back?”