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Laguna Beach Mural Gets the Brushoff

Art: Passersby express regret as hotel paints over the 'Whaling Wall,' Robert Wyland's first such work.


LAGUNA BEACH — In a graphic illustration of what can happen when art, politics and economics collide, it took just a few fast brush strokes Wednesday to destroy what a painter had created and given to the world.

The famous "Whaling Wall" of Laguna Beach artist Robert Wyland is no more.

The two whales--a mother and calf that for 15 years were depicted cruising the Pacific in a background of blue, were covered over with white paint by painters hired by a hotel operator who wants to expand his operation and considered the 130-foot-long mural an eyesore.

"Why did they paint over something like that?" Kimberly Draman, 37, of Long Beach said as she strolled past. "It's sad! It's stupid."

Draman joined a chorus of surprised people who walked by and noticed that something had been changed along Coast Highway.

In a desperate move to save the mural, Wyland paid $1 million for the property he believed included the wall. But he found out too late that the wall actually belonged to Hotel Laguna, whose operator plans to paint it as part of the expansion.

Wyland then took his battle to City Hall, but lost when the City Council in April backed property rights over preservation of what has become a cultural symbol since Wyland painted the whales in 1981.

Claes Anderson, who leases and operates Hotel Laguna, refused comment on the mural Wednesday, telling a reporter, "Good luck with your article."

Anderson had told the council he believed the life-size mural was so chipped and weathered that it had become an eyesore.

But Wyland, 40, had hoped to restore the wall, which was his first mural and helped launch a career that has made him internationally famous.

"I knew it was coming," Wyland said in a recent telephone interview from his home on Hawaii's North Shore. "I knew I lost that battle but it's still terrible, especially when I got the news today that it's been whitewashed out."

Laguna's was the first of 67 such murals across the nation and in other countries, painted by Wyland with help from volunteers and with corporate and private donations. Wyland plans to paint 100 murals by 2011.

Anderson intends to paint the wall that held Wyland's original mural a cream color, and to add terra-cotta trim.

Wyland vows to create a similar mural on a wall next to the one that's been painted over.

The new mural will go up on his property, he said, and will be crafted from hand-painted tiles.

"First and foremost it will be permanent," he said.

And smaller.

James Conrad, a Laguna Beach architect who is also constructing Wyland's new gallery adjacent to the hotel, said the mural will be 12 feet tall by about 130 feet long. The old mural was 30 feet tall.

Work on the new mural will begin in mid-October and is expected to be finished for a gallery opening Nov. 6, Wyland said.

When Lake Forest residents Deanne Holford, 37, and her husband, Don, saw the freshly painted wall Wednesday, Deanne said: "Where did it go? That's like an artifact of Laguna Beach history. That's sad."

The Holfords joined a stream of beach tourists walking by the former landmark in tank tops and sandals, staring at what was now a bare wall.

"The whales are gone!" said Joe Heinemann, 56, of Northridge. "We were walking down here and noticed something different. Gosh, we've been coming here to Laguna for the past 12 years. This is something."

Wyland said he struggled to save the mural because as soon as something goes, people start missing it.

After hearing that his mural was whited out, he became emotional.

"That was my first mural and I made a promise to do 100 around the world," he said. "I . . . well, I'm upset. I'm stressed. I gotta go swim, I can't take this, thank you. Goodbye," he said, as his voice trailed off and the line clicked dead.

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