Prince of Whales

updated 11/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/21/1994 AT 01:00 AM EST

WHERE THERE'S A WHALE, there's a way. After the artist Wyland, who paints huge whale murals and makes millions from sales of his art, discovered last year that Free Willy's cetacean star, Keiko, was languishing in an undersize tank at Mexico City's El Nuevo Reino Aventura marine park, he went to investigate. "We made eye contact and bonded," says the artist. "It was very emotional."

That was when Wyland, 38, who three years ago legally dropped Robert "to make Wyland a name of respect," dove in. Though the park had already planned to release Keiko (who suffers from a skin disease that may be caused by his confinement) to a larger, undetermined home within 18 months, Wyland got the park management to put it in writing. In return he agreed to paint one of his trademark "whaling walls," which he completed in September.

Wyland, whose work is panned by critics ("it's advertising, not art," sniffs one) but hailed by marine experts, painted his first mural, an Alpine scene, on the side of a Dairy Queen near his home in suburban Detroit when he was 16. On a trip to California in 1971, he saw whales migrating and began painting images of them; his fascination led him to move to Laguna Beach, Calif., in 1977.

Today Wyland employs 200 people—including his mother, Darlene, two of his three brothers and his girlfriend, Angela Eaton, 30—in the production and sale (at 20 galleries in 13 U.S. cities) of Wyland oil paintings, prints, watercolors, sculptures and other objets de whale, such as Wyland sweatshirts and mugs. Prices: $11 for the mugs and more than $100,000 for some of the paintings. (Sales topped $10 million last year.)

But Wyland does his murals for free. Using a gallon-a-minute industrial spray gun, he can finish one in a matter of days. His 66 oversize works decorate the sides of buildings on both U.S coasts and overseas, and they include the 128,000-sq.-ft. Guinness record holder (for the largest mural) in Long Beach, Calif.

In 1996, Wyland will embark on a mural-painting tour of the Midwest. He hopes people will "see the beauty of nature and want to protect it. I just have to keep doing what I know I can do," he says. "Paint the great spirit." And autograph the great sweatshirt—at no extra charge.

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