I've noticed a large mural depicting sea life on the side of a building off Convention Center Boulevard by the Riverwalk. What is the history of it? Was it painted for the World's Fair?
The "whale wall," as it is commonly called, doesn't date quite as far back as the 1984 Louisiana World Exposition, but the mural you describe makes such a statement that it feels like it's been there forever. Painted on the side of a building that is part of the Hilton New Orleans Riverside and overlooks a parking lot at the Outlet Collection at Riverwalk, the mural was unveiled on May 3, 1997. The Blue Whales is the official title of the mural done by the environmental artist who goes by just his last name — Wyland. The work is 251 feet long and 66 feet high and depicts whales and marine life common to the Gulf of Mexico.
A Michigan native, Wyland began painting life-size whales on the sides of buildings in the 1980s, calling the works "whaling walls." In 2008, he completed his goal of painting 100 such murals in spots spanning five continents, 17 countries and 79 cities around the world. According to his foundation's website, www.wylandfoundation.org, the artist's goal was to increase appreciation for aquatic habitats and encourage conservation. All of his time and the supplies used to finish the murals were donated.
Wyland's project was not without controversy. The artist originally proposed painting the mural on the Aquarium of the Americas because he shared the facility's mission. But the Vieux Carre Commission harpooned the idea, saying the mural could be construed as advertising and might lead to other unwanted paintings on French Quarter and riverfront walls.
"I understand them completely," Wyland told The Times-Picayune after the commission's decision. "People have historic areas that they want to preserve."
The Hilton later invited Wyland to move his idea a few blocks away to its blank outdoor "canvas." "First, I will paint the Gulf," Wyland said as he began the artistic process. "Then I will look into it and envision and then paint what swims past my mind's eye. Many who will never get to see a whale will be able to see one on this public wall."