Artist Wyland challenges plans to remove his gray whale mural on Laguna Canyon Road

It’s one of the last images of the sea people see as they leave Laguna Beach: a gray whale popping it’s head out of the Pacific Ocean.

On Friday, July 30, a press conference was held in front of the 34-year-old mural along Laguna Canyon Road, one of Wyland’s 100 Whaling Wall series, to oppose plans for its removal.

The developer who bought the industrial property wants to replace the porcelain tile image with tenant signs, but the marine artist is saying the mural is protected by the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990.

  • A tile replica of a Wyland painting of a California Gray Whale in Laguna Beach, CA, on Friday, July 30, 2021. Steve Creech, the president of the Wyland Foundation, says the property owner of the industrial building along Laguna Canyon Road is planning to demolish the 500-square foot artwork on Saturday. The existing tile mural, which dates back to 1996 replaced a painted version installed over 30 years ago. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Wyland supporters stand near tile replica of a Wyland painting of a California Gray Whale in Laguna Beach, CA, on Friday, July 30, 2021. Steve Creech, the president of the Wyland Foundation, says the property owner of the industrial building along Laguna Canyon Road is planning to demolish the 500-square foot artwork on Saturday. The existing tile mural, which dates back to 1996 replaced a painted version installed over 30 years ago. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • Steve Creech, the president of the Wyland Foundation, near tile replica of a Wyland painting of a California Gray Whale in Laguna Beach, CA, on Friday, July 30, 2021. Creech says the property owner of the industrial building along Laguna Canyon Road is planning to demolish the 500-square foot artwork on Saturday. The existing tile mural, which dates back to 1996 replaced a painted version installed over 30 years ago. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • A tile replica of a Wyland painting of a California Gray Whale in Laguna Beach, CA, on Friday, July 30, 2021. Steve Creech, the president of the Wyland Foundation, says the property owner of the industrial building along Laguna Canyon Road is planning to demolish the 500-square foot artwork on Saturday. The existing tile mural, which dates back to 1996 replaced a painted version installed over 30 years ago. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • A Laguna Beach police officer tells Steve Creech, the president of the Wyland Foundation, and other Wyland supporters that they are trespassing as they hold a press conference near tile replica of a Wyland painting of a California Gray Whale in Laguna Beach, CA, on Friday, July 30, 2021. Creech says the property owner of the industrial building along Laguna Canyon Road is planning to demolish the 500-square foot artwork on Saturday. The existing tile mural, which dates back to 1996 replaced a painted version installed over 30 years ago. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

  • A tile replica of a Wyland painting of a California Gray Whale in Laguna Beach, CA, on Friday, July 30, 2021. Steve Creech, the president of the Wyland Foundation, says the property owner of the industrial building along Laguna Canyon Road is planning to demolish the 500-square foot artwork on Saturday. The existing tile mural, which dates back to 1996 replaced a painted version installed over 30 years ago. (Photo by Jeff Gritchen, Orange County Register/SCNG)

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Chris Dornin, president and CEO of Dornin Investment Group, contends the mural was originally installed as a billboard sign to advertise the Wyland gallery that was once located on the property.

“Wyland designed it so he could remove it when he vacated the property, but he never did and now he is trying to claim something drastically different,” Dornin wrote in an email.

Wyland, speaking from Hawaii where he’s preparing for the grand opening of a new Wyland Gallery on Kauai, said he originally did create the art on honeycomb so it could be removed, but many years have passed and it is now too fragile to take down.

“People have driven by that wall for 30 years. It belongs there, it needs to stay there,” Wyland said. “Someone that buys a building doesn’t have a right to destroy art that becomes part of the community.  That’s the critical importance of public art.”

Wyland got his start in Laguna Beach, inspired during a summer trip as a kid when he saw gray whales nearby while he was swimming in the ocean.

His first-ever mural and the first of his 100-wall project was painted in 1981 on Pacific Coast Highway –  a piece of art that later put him at odds with the previous owners of Hotel Laguna, who painted over it in the mid-’90s. The hotel’s current owner allowed Wyland to recreate his original mural two years ago, which is next to his Laguna Beach work-live studio.

In 2017, Wyland battled with Hawaiian Airlines after it bought the airport center building in Honolulu and wanted the rights to the two murals on the buildings. The airline and artist eventually came to agreement, with Wyland restoring the artwork.

Since last year, Wyland and the developers of the AES power plant in Redondo Beach have been at odds over an iconic 586-foot, 95-foot high mural he created there in 1991.

Wyland argues his murals have protections under the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, including requiring written consent before the work can be destroyed.

“They’ve come across the wrong artist. If they get away with it, all public art is exposed. I need to stand up for artists. I will always do that,” Wyland said. “Our position is, we are not allowing them to remove or damage the mural, now or in the future.”

Dornin said he received design review approval more than a year ago from the city for cosmetic upgrades, including replacing the Wyland billboard with tenant signage for the property at 2171 Laguna Canyon Road.

He contends the piece was never commissioned as part of the city’s Art in Public Places program.

“That doesn’t in any way say it’s not public art,” Wyland said. “It’s one of the largest public art projects in Orange County and inspired so many more, and so many other artists.”

The piece, “Laguna Coast,” is one of the smaller murals in the Whaling Wall series at 20 feet long and 24 feet high. The 12th in the project, it was dedicated on Dec. 2, 1987 and later recreated in porcelain tile in 1996.

“Art is important to the community.  Who thinks it’s a good idea to remove something that is a landmark in Laguna Beach, plus adds value to the building and the community?” Wyland said.

But Dornin said Wyland is welcome to keep the art and has given him two years notice to remove the mural.

“If the billboard is important to him, he is more than welcome to remove it and show it in one of his galleries or install it on a property he owns,” Dornin said.

Steve Creech, executive director of the Wyland Foundation who was at Friday’s press conference, said though there were emails exchanged years ago, a third-party source just warned them about possible imminent removal, maybe as early as Saturday, and time is needed for inspection. Dornin could not be reached to ask about any immediate demolition plans.

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