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I love this quote from a Zen Buddhist text: “The Master in the art of living makes little distinction between his work and his play, his labor and his leisure, his mind and his body, his education and his recreation, his love and his religion. He hardly knows which is which. He simply pursues his vision of excellence in whatever he does, leaving others to the side, whether he is working or playing. To him, he is always doing both.”

Marine life artist Wyland truly embodies this principle and has gained fame and fortune in the process. He has earned the distinction of being one of America’s most unique creative influences, and is a leading advocate for marine resource conservation.

An accomplished painter, sculptor, photographer, writer and scuba diver, he has traveled the farthest reaches of the globe for more than 25 years, capturing the raw power and beauty of the undersea universe.

With half a million collectors in over 30 countries, he has done more than any other artist to raise awareness of the beauty of life on our blue planet. Wyland has developed an international reputation for his commitment to marine life conservation, most notably through his monumental marine life murals, the Whaling Walls.

Spanning thousands of square feet, these massive works of art expose more than 1 billion people each year to the thrilling diversity and beauty of life that exists below the surface of our planet. Today this multi-faceted artist works in multi-medium, including oils, water colors, acrylics, Japanese ink paintings, bronze sculptures, fine art photography, and mixed media.

He is considered one of the most successful working artists alive today. Wyland’s commitment to our environment and the preservation of our planet’s aquatic resources have earned him recognition in numerous ways, including the United Nations Peace Bell Award, the Academy of Underwater Arts and Sciences, Diving Hall of Fame, the Guinness Book of World Records for the worlds largest mural in 1993, an honorary doctorate from InterContinental University in Atlanta, and Who’s Who in American Art.

The company he created, Wyland Worldwide, has taken a leading role in the promotion and preservation of our ocean resources through publishing, apparel design, retail merchandise, and fine art distributorships.

Perhaps most importantly, his non-profit Wyland Foundation, in partnership with the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, is actively engaged in alerting millions of students around the world to become caring and foreign stewards of our oceans, rivers, lakes, streams, and wetlands.

   Wyland:  It’s great to talk to you. I’m actually in Honolulu right now. It’s a beautiful day here on the north shore. The waves are gigantic. They’re having the World Championship of Surfing, so there’s a lot of energy over here. I’m really proud to be able to do this interview with you today.  

   Janet Attwood:  Thank you. I’m in your very favorite vacation spot, Fairfield, Iowa, where I won’t even say how cold it is outside.

   Wyland:  I can relate – I’m originally from Michigan, from the Great Lakes area. I couldn’t wait to get out of college and get to the California coast, and eventually find my way out to Hawaii where it’s warm. I’m kind of a solar powered artist, you might say.

   Janet Attwood:  That’s so great. Let me ask you – how have your passions, the things which are most important to you in your life, led you to the work you do today?

   Wyland:  Everything I do is about passion. I call it a “hobby that got out of control.”  Like you said in your opening statement, my job is really my hobby. It’s really a lifestyle. I think Jimmy Buffet and I probably have the two best jobs on the planet – doing what we love, creating art, and sharing it with the world. I really feel blessed that I found it early.

When I first felt that I had some artistic ability I was painting dinosaurs and Jurassic scenes. I could just spend all day painting murals on the back headboard of my parent’s bed, so I wouldn’t get caught painting on the wall. I actually slid underneath the bed, used the paint from under the kitchen sink – the ugly beiges and different terrible colors.

I would create these Jurassic scenes, dinosaurs, and volcanoes. It was just really amazing to be able to have that ability to create art from nothing, really.

   Janet Attwood:  At what age was that, when you used to slide under the bed and create those things?

   Wyland:  I can’t do it any more; I’m a little larger now. In fact, I just turned 50. When I was 3 and 4 years old I was fascinated by dinosaurs. That was our generation. Today kids are fascinated by great whales, sharks, turtles, and animals of the sea. They still like dinosaurs, but I think the marine and aquatic animals have really taken their place in the 21st century.

   Janet Attwood:  Many people have the idea that artists have to starve in order to follow their passion for art. Yet you’ve been mega successful financially, as well as artistically. Will you tell us the story of how you made your first dollar following your passions, and how you turned your art into a stream of income that has allowed you to continue doing what you love?

   Wyland:  I never believed in that starving artist thing. It just didn’t sound good – the Bohemian starving artist. It sounded terrible! Plus, I was having so much fun painting the ocean and the animals. I just didn’t see it. Immediately I said, “I’m going to do this and be successful at it.”

I decided that I would have to work hard. I had a life lesson when I was 16. My mom decided that I needed to learn about the working world, the real world, so she got me a job working on the assembly line in Detroit, a day worker’s job. Of course, I got fired the first day. I couldn’t keep my mind on the job and was thinking about how I should be working on my art. Then the next day I got fired from another factory work job in Detroit. The third day I got fired, and I was too embarrassed to go home. So I went to a coffee shop near the factory and told this waitress my entire life story.

“I’m an artist. I can’t be working in a factory! I should be home working on my art and my paintings, and involving my art.” She was great – she kept pouring free coffee all night. Eventually I want to make a movie about it.

My mom knew what she was doing – they always do. She knew by showing me what the real working world looked like I would be more passionate and take care of my talent that I was blessed with. I said, “Can I build a studio in the basement and really work hard on my art, because I want to get a scholarship to my favorite art school, the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit.”

Sure enough, I did! I put together a great portfolio, and I never looked back. I was always really determined to be successful with my art. Ironically, I started doing art exhibits even in junior high school. I started selling my art to the parents and teachers. My oil paintings were selling for around $35. Now they sell for $400,000 to $500,000 for my big published ones.

It’s really amazing. I just decided that I would be successful. And, with the success, I always wanted to give something back. I think it’s been a great balance in my life and my art career.

   Janet Attwood:  It’s so great that your mother had the insight to have you go and get a job. She knew, right?

   Wyland:  Yeah, she knew. I didn’t realize how smart she was until years later. She knew that I wouldn’t make it. In fact, she was probably in on it – on me getting fired. She was that smart. She knew that I had to learn a life lesson, that hey, here’s your choice if you don’t work hard on your art. You get to work in a factory in Detroit.

My parents were both auto workers. I didn’t want that job. I knew I wanted to be an artist, and I knew I had to find a way. In fact, I knew I wanted to be an artist in California because that’s where new ideas were coming out of. I happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Sure, I was from Michigan, and I wanted to be an ocean artist. As the environmental movement was starting to grow in the early 70’s, I visited the California coast when I was 14, with my three brothers and my mom. We visited her sister, my aunt. I went and saw the ocean for the first time. Ironically, the gray whales were migrating along the shore, and two of them spouted. These barnacle encrusted backs right in front of me! Can you imagine? It’s like seeing dinosaurs.

It changed my life. I was committed to studying whales and painting whales, and it just kept evolving from there. Eventually I started diving into the sea, and I got to see these whales in their natural world. It even led up, ten years later from the first time I saw those two whales, to painting them on a side of a building in a public place, life-size, right down to the last barnacle.

   Janet Attwood:  Is that what attracted you to doing marine art, when you visited the California coast at 14? Or was it at an earlier time?

   Wyland:  I was painting ocean scenes and traditional marine art. What I do is really considered marine life art. It’s not man’s conquest of the sea, but man’s desire to protect the oceans and the animals of the sea. It’s really a whole new art form.

It really kind of grew out of that. Then, of course, at the same time, my hero Jacques Cousteau was bringing these beautiful messages and these films every week – “The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.” That had a profound impact on me. I felt early on that art could play an important role. In the beginning I thought, what could art do to help save whales or oceans? But I know now that art can play a very important and vital role. It has!

In fact, look at art in the history of humans. Art has played an important role all along. In the 21st century art can play one of the most important roles of all. It needs to be an environmental renaissance in the 21st century. We need to see change. The 2oth century was a disaster.

It’s really funny how these things happen. They just kind of unfold naturally. Like I said, I’m a water sign. I was in the right place at the right time. I was surrounded by the Great Lakes. But I had no idea that I would have the impact that I’m having today on this generation.

   Janet Attwood:  You never really truly know where it’s going to go when you follow your passions. You just take it step by step, right?

   Wyland:  Exactly! And something seems to be pushing you along. I truly believe in everything that happens for a reason. I’ve had to earn it, too. I was a starving artist. I lived on Snickers bars – I really did. I never wanted anybody to help me, either. I felt that I had to work really hard and make it on my own.

We created this whole new art form, and it’s still growing. In fact, it’s become a world-wide brand. With the success becomes, I believe, a responsibility to give it all back. What I’ve chosen to do is share my inspiration that I see in the ocean, and now the Mississippi River and all these beautiful animals and habitats, to share that with people through my art, through public murals, my paintings, sculptures, in my books that I write, and through my education program.

It’s a real passion, and you can’t even describe it, but to be able to share it magnifies it a thousand-fold. To be able to see kids getting the message and getting the inspiration, and then going out there and making things happen. Getting them involved is the greatest accomplishment that I feel I’ve done so far. And I’m still getting started!

   Janet Attwood:  I want to come back to that, but I have another question beforehand. What do you think it is that made your art so popular in the beginning, when it started taking off, and then up to this point? What do you think it is? Because there’s lots of art out there.

Wyland:  Believe me, in the beginning people were looking at me like, what? Paintings of whales? Portraits of great whales? I don’t think so!

But I was in the right place, as I said. As the environmental movement grew so did the appreciation of my art. And not only the art, I believe it was about the message equally. I think that’s what has really elevated it. A lot of art is about the art. Mine is equally about the message, that if people see the beauty in nature they will work to preserve it.

My art is on a grand scale. A lot of my art is in very public places. I’m painting life-size portraits of great whales – 100 foot blue whales and other marine life. So it’s really captured the imagination of our generation. I feel really proud that I could be in a position now to make a difference in our world, the natural world, in using art. It’s a really unique opportunity to really make a difference.

   Janet Attwood:  I love what you said, that if people see the beauty in nature, then they will protect it. In the way that you get to express what it is that you love, it naturally just immediately opens people’s eyes and points them in the right direction of how they can help and protect these things that all of us find so dear, which is our ocean and our beautiful mammals. I’m a whale addict big-time! Thank you so much for what you’re doing.

   Wyland:  Art can go further than just like a photograph, it can go further. You can capture the spiritual quality. Art can really move people. When I started diving in the ocean and I got close to these whales on their terms, by the way, what I call soft water encounter, where you’re not chasing the whales.

When you chase a whale or you chase any animal, it moves away from you. If you kind of ignore the animal and let it get used to you over a period of time, eventually they get curious, and they’ll swim over, they’ll bring their babies.  To have that kind of relationship with the ocean and with the animals – it’s amazing! They sense it. These are animals that have been around for tens of millions of years.

Once they identify you not as a threat, they become curious. Then, to be able to take those images that I see in my mind’s eye and be able to paint them on canvas, or sculpt them in bronzes or lucites, or be able to paint them life-size and tell a story of these animals and their habitats, and some of the animals that are there with them. To be able to put it in such a creative way for people to understand it.

The thing with me is I don’t paint for art critics. I paint for people. As an artist you get to choose. You either have to paint for the critics and what’s hot and trendy, or you have to follow what you know. What I know is everything that I’ve learned about oceans, animals, and aquatic life. So that’s really where I paint from, and people seem to appreciate that.

The art critics – I haven’t heard from them in awhile. They aren’t picking on me anymore.

   Janet Attwood:  When you’re as world-wide as you are I think they tend to leave you alone a little, don’t you?

   Wyland:  You might even become a bigger target, who knows? I think even the media and art critics realize the message. Like Al Gore says, global warming has become real. We can’t hide the devastation and the impact that humans are having on our natural world. We need to see change! We need to turn that around, and art can certainly contribute to that.

   Janet Attwood:  With you talking about that, let’s talk about your art and what you’re doing for the world in terms of waking them up to the natural beauty of the environment and preserving it. How did you come to that place where you started realizing the two go together and this is what I have to do? I’m not hearing you say through this interview so far that it’s all about art. What I’m hearing you say is that the medium in which you can spread also a very important spiritual message about preserving our beautiful nature.

   Wyland:  I think, like anything else, you kind of get into it and you start seeing coral reefs and coral graveyards. Where there used to be beautiful reefs you come back 10 years later, you dive, and it’s nothing but a coral graveyard. You start really thinking, “Man, I better get people involved here and start doing my part. Otherwise it’s all going to be gone.”

They’re predicting that many of the marine species will be gone by the middle of this century. We need to do what we can. I feel good about it! I don’t look at it as a negative. What I look at it as is, “Hey, we have a real chance to turn things around here.”  This generation will be the generation who will save the planet.

It used to be everyone was laughing at the hippies and surfers. It turns out they were right. We are damaging the planet every day. But the good news is, the young people get it. My entire focus has been on creating art and science programs, education programs, and curriculum for every school in America, and beyond that, every school in the world.

What I’m doing right now is working with the Scripps Institute of Oceanography and the Birch Aquarium, and all these great scientists like Sylvia Earle and Bob Ballard. We’re trying to present how people can learn, share their knowledge, take action every day, and do small things to preserve the quality of water. Without clean water and healthy oceans we really don’t have a quality of life for us. It’s just so important and vital. I’ll tell you, these kids get it! They see the destruction – they see what’s going on. They want to be involved in it. We’re just really excited that we can create this creative program that’s not only science, but art, too. Everybody feels empowered by it.

I just wrote a book called Hold Your Water: 68 Things You Need to Know to Keep Our Planet Blue. In the back you can make water pledges, take shorter showers, when you brush your teeth shut the fountain off, fix leaks around, wash your car properly, pick up the dog poo, little things. You can, literally, add all these things up and see how much water you’re saving on an annual basis. Our goal next year in this Wyland Ocean Challenge, this live Clean Water tour, is to save one billion gallons of water in the U.S.

   Janet Attwood:  That is so fabulous. The book is Hold Your Water: 68 Things You Need to Know to Keep Our Planet Blue?

   Wyland:  Absolutely, and you can get it over at Barnes and Noble. It’s a cool little book – it’s like a $10 book, it’s $9.95 or something. It has 67 really clever ways that people can do, creative ways that they can preserve water and really make a huge difference for conservation of our planet.

   Janet Attwood:  It sounds like a very good Christmas stocking stuffer.

   Wyland:  It’s one of my favorite little books. I just wrote my 14th book. Most of the artists that I studied when I was a kid growing up are dead. They were all dead! So to be able to have 14 books and get your message out there is pretty exciting.

Like I said, I don’t believe in that starving artist, and you have to be dead to be famous. All that stuff was ridiculous to me. I think there needs to be a new paradigm in the 21st century. I try to talk to lots of artists. I’ve talked to over a million kids one-on-one as I do these 50-state tours of America, and do these live events. This year we were barging down the Mississippi.

My message is let me tell you, if you’re an artist, and you want to be an artist, you just follow your dream and do it. The 21st century is the greatest time in history to be an artist, because you can actually make a living and you can make a contribution, and both of those things are connected.

   Janet Attwood:  How do you define passion? Would this be the way, and how you see it being expressed in your life?

   Wyland:  Everybody has to find their passion. The passion is what drives your whole life. Find a passion for something and then just make it happen. I tell kids all the time too – you know I’m always focused on kids, and the young-at-heart out there listening, too.

If you do what you love to do, you’ve reached the pinnacle of success in your entire life. If you’re doing your passion and you make that your life and your work, and it’s all combined together, you will be successful. Whether you’re going to be extremely rich successful or just successful in that, man, you have a smile on your face and you’re giving back and you’re a good human being. It’s the pinnacle of success in life.

When kids hear that – I want to be a writer, I want to be a filmmaker, an artist, a teacher, an athlete. I’m going to believe in myself and I’m not going to let anybody tell me I can’t do it. Here in America we have more opportunity. We just have to have the passion and desire, and to never, never quit. Never give up! Just keep working towards that goal and you’ll move towards it. Eventually you’ll pass it and even exceed it.

   Janet Attwood:  Have you faced any challenges or obstacles along the way of following your passions? How have you dealt with those? What can you say to the kids of the world, and what role have passions played in helping you overcome those challenges?

   Wyland:  Every single successful person has challenges. I use them as fuel. I say, let that be your fuel. When I was leaving Michigan, after two years of art school, it was cold – winters were long and cold. I said, “I’ve got to go to California and make it as an artist.”

The day before, I was taking out the garbage. Mom said “You’ve got to take out the garbage,” so I’m out there. My neighbor, one of the only neighbors who had money, came by – she was kind of a snooty lady – and she said, “I hear you’re moving out to California?”

I said, “Yeah, I’m going out there to try to make it as an artist.” She said, “You may be a good artist in Detroit, but you’ll never make it in California.”

   Janet Attwood:  Don’t you love it!

   Wyland:  I love it! Let that be your fuel. Every time somebody says you can’t make it, you just put it right up there and let that be your fuel to succeed. The biggest success is people saying that you can’t make it. Then when you do make it, you don’t have to say anything, by the way. It’s all been said.

   Janet Attwood:  What advice, Wyland, do you have for any of our listeners who are artists of any sort? I’m sure there are a lot of them on this evening with us who have felt, up until now, that they couldn’t pursue their passion for art, because they have to meet their responsibilities.

I know my sister is even in that bracket – a frustrated artist who never has enough time to do their art. What do you say to them?

   Wyland:  I know, I see it all the time.  I feel sorry for these poor people who have to work a real job, and then try to come home. You just have nothing left. They beat you up all day at work and then you have to have something left for your art.

It’s really hard. You have to be prepared to just put your head down and believe in yourself. I wouldn’t gung-ho quit your job and just start working on your art. I would have a plan. I would have that up on the board and work towards that goal. Save a little money. Somebody told me to save 10% of every dollar I ever made, and that really helped. I still do – I take 10% of every penny I’ve ever made and I just put it away.

Believe in yourself and give that to yourselves, artists, if you’re listening. If you want to be an artist, don’t let one thing stand in your way, but be smart about it.

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