Wyland protests planned demolition of Laguna Canyon whale mural

A tile mural by Wyland at 2171 Laguna Canyon Road shows a gray whale rising out of the sea. Photo courtesy of Wyland Foundation

Correction: Due to a reporting error, an earlier version of this story misstated the previous owner of 2171 Laguna Canyon Road. Wyland Gallery is a former tenant. The Independent regrets the error.

A prominent Laguna Beach artist is protesting the planned demolition of his gray whale mural on a Laguna Canyon building, arguing it should be preserved forever under a federal law that protects certain public art.

Robert Wyland, a renowned marine life artist and conservationist, said his 500 square-foot mural at 2171 Laguna Canyon Road was set to be demolished Monday, according to a press release. A photojournalist reporting for the Independent said there was no construction activity at the mural site on Monday morning.

The existing tile mural, which dates back to 1996 and replaced a previous iteration installed over 30 years ago, is culturally significant and falls under the protection of the Visual Artists Rights Act of 1990, Wyland claims.

“These laws were created not only to protect the rights of artists but to save significant, meaningful artworks in communities everywhere,” Wyland said in a press release. “The gray whale mural is an important symbol of Laguna Beach’s commitment to the arts and environment. Destroying it destroys everything we stand for.”

Chris Dornin, CEO of Dornin Investment Group, acquired the Laguna Canyon property two years ago. It previously served as the home to Wyland Gallery before it was relocated to its current South Coast Highway building.

As early as May 2019, Dornin Investment Group invited Wyland to relocate the mural, which is bolted to the building, according to emails provided to the Independent. The real estate investor also conveyed a statement from city officials that the mural isn’t part of Laguna Beach’s art collection or the Art in Public Places program.

“He’s had all the opportunities over the last two years and he hasn’t done anything about it,” Dornin said in a phone interview Thursday.

On Friday, Dornin said he will offer the mural to the Laguna College of Arts + Design or other interested individuals if the artist declines to take custody. Wyland argues the mural would likely not remain intact if he tries to move it.

In February 2020, the Design Review Board approved Dornin’s plans for the site, which include covering the existing mural wall. Instead, he plans to use the wall space to advertise future tenants.

Steve Creech, president of Wyland Foundation, said in a phone interview Thursday that he and Wyland have no recollection of receiving notice about the planned demolition.

“The first we heard about this was yesterday,” Creech said. “I just feel that is really disingenuous.”

Creech pointed out that millions of visitors have seen the gray whale mural as they depart Laguna Beach, signaling the city’s decades-long commitment to protecting its marine environment and wildlife.

“If that’s not the textbook definition of public art, I don’t know what is,” he said.

Wyland Foundation staff and about a dozen supporters held a press conference Friday in the parking lot adjacent to the mural. Wyland was out of the state on Friday, Creech said.

Steve Creech, president of Wyland Foundation, speaks in front of a gray whale tile mural in Laguna Canyon on Friday. Photo by Daniel Langhorne

Laguna Beach resident Lynette McCall came out to demonstrate against the mural’s demolition with a sign reading “Save This Wall” because she’s been a fan of Wyland’s work since she moved to town in 1993.

“The first thing I saw when I came out here was the ocean and this whale,” she said. “I’ve been hooked ever since.”

About 10 minutes into Creech’s speech, a Laguna Beach police officer asked the group to leave, saying the building owner wanted them off the property. In the absence of public parking spaces, several attendees parked their vehicles in red zones or in private lots.

“I think it’s a little extreme,” Creech said while standing on the road’s shoulder. “We’re talking about saving works of art and they’re bringing in squads of police officers. It’s kind of a new low.”

A Laguna Beach police officer waits for Wyland supporters to leave the site of a Friday protest over a planned mural demolition. Photo by Daniel Langhorne
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  1. Why was the original side by side rendering vs existing image of Dornin’s project removed from the article? Curious to see why as that is an integral part of what’s going to be replacing the mural.

  2. I remember when Bob was suspended from the Sawdust Festival back in 1988, I’m not sure if he ever returned or sued them as he threatened—-Word was that he had mass production, $3/hour workers up in Santa Ana reproducing his kitsch.
    From the LAT archives:
    And no, even though every time I see him I call him what he WAS known as (Bob), he keeps demanding that I call him WYLAND: Like he’s Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Brancusi, van Gogh, Gaugin, Miro, Picasso, Dali, Giacometti or some other historical giant of art.
    It’s his marketing strategy, actually developed by his brother: Public places are great promotional venues.
    He is a legend in his own mind, I support DIG in this—-Bob has an arrogant, dark side that I unfortunately saw first hand out at the Sawdust and while I played shortstop for the Sawdust’s first softball team. He’d just walk into the outfield at the last minute, didn’t warm up with us as if we were beneath him.
    Claimed he’d played college ball? Well, I was the unanimous MVP that first season, led the team in batting average, slugging percentage, RBIs, home runs and fielding. Former high school teacher and great guy lefty Bill Darnell (1st Base) was runner-up. Jorg Dubin was on that team (2nd base?), I think he was a faithful and diligent, no nonsense President of the Sawdust. We had lot of fun and didn’t need Bob’s snobbery.
    He doesn’t want that mural moved because it makes him money, promotes him—same thing happened when Claes Anderson removed the mural in the Hotel Laguna parking lot. With Bob, it’s all about what it’ll do for him, screw the legitimate rights of property owners.
    Looks like he’s once again threatening to sue someone with deep pockets, how typical…….

  3. How much does it cost to move it? Is there a proposed site in mind? Why not take it to Dana Point we are rebuilding the Marina. Surely they can interject or include those historical piece there??? Despite what personality this artist has ….the work itself is certainly worth saving.

  4. It looks like the Bob Wyland “skeletons in the closet” history is real, way beyond what I knew about him. Read the OCR article (link below) that cites several other Bob vs. The World situations.
    Apparently this situation is his MO: Leverage then bully via his brand and $$$ to threaten litigation, tying his opponent up and getting his way.
    Using Bob’s logic, if my landlord, a legitimate locally raised native Laguna artist, sculpted or painted my mailbox, out there on a public street, would it qualify under The Visual Artist’s Rights Act? Art In Public Places?
    Would any subsequent owner of our property be FORCED to maintain it as is? That’s illogical.
    This mural had one purpose: Promote a business. The business is no longer there, hence remove the advertisement sign.
    Full disclosure: I have crossed swords with Chris Dornin personally and with his ilk, no love lost there, but he and his investors have proprietary rights too. Sounds like their patience has been worn thin.
    Bob probably thought like the famous Rick James quote about stardom (“D—n, don’t you know that I’m famous, I’m Rick James, d—n it!” the arrogance obvious.
    And this sure looks like Bob Sues Again Part V, one in an ugly confrontational series.

  5. I like that whale mural. It is definitely public and worthy of being preserved unlike the ugly pieces of granite figures that resides next to the City Hall fire house that was fabricated in China according to a sculptor friend.

  6. Wait, wait, Don’t tell me – Wyland Supporters? Is that Like a Nike Cup? That idea is a brilliant new licensing idea that a guy like Creech will be shopping Monday! Wyland’s the guy who gave the Coastal Commision a whale picture to gain huge brand identification, and then tried to sue ’em for money he needed when the WORLD WIDE HEADQUARTERS was having garage sales. Now coming from a city where fishing in the ocean is banned, can’t the voters ban cartoons like this clown puts out?

  7. Roger, he should sue you defamation. You have no proof but an LA Times article about some charms. Way to support local artists!


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