Artists restoring iconic Russell Street whale mural

Two decades worth of rain, sun, wind and dirt had so faded and chipped the mural of life-size whales that many of the thousands of daily commuters who travel the busy section of Russell Street likely didn't notice the massive piece of art.

"Extinct Atlantic Gray Whales," a 5,200-square-foot painting, has graced the side of a CapitalTristate electrical distributors warehouse at Russell and Hamburg streets since 1993 — long enough for many to forget the mural was painted amid fanfare and protest.


But when the building's owners at St. John Properties Inc. recently began planning to repaint the wall, they rediscovered the history — the mural is one of 100 around the world the artist known as Wyland created over a period of nearly 30 years, intending to inspire ocean conservation. Instead of replacing it, St. John is having the work restored by a pair of local artists.

"We realized we must restore it. There's no other option," said Al Cunniff, St. John's director of marketing. "We must treat it with respect."

Shawn James, who formerly organized the creation of murals across the city for the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, and local artist Charles Lawrance are preserving what's left of the mural and repainting what has been lost over the past two decades.

Lawrance worked Sunday on a section of the mural that shows a group of dolphins trailing a massive gray whale and its calf. While one of the dolphins' eyes had been reduced to a dark blob, Lawrance was able to clean up another's back to lifelike detail.

"What we're trying to do is bring the beauty of the mural back to where it was originally," James said. "It will probably look a little differently because you've got another artist's hands on it."

They began this month with a good wash to remove years of pollution and grime, with flakes of paint barely still hanging on. Then they coated it with a transparent bonding primer to preserve and protect what's left of the original work.

Now the project is a matter of meticulously matching paint colors and referring back to images of the original work. That is no simple task, given that there are no high-resolution digital images available from 21 years ago. Even if there were, James and Lawrance acknowledge that they each have a different eye and touch than Wyland.

"We're painting it in reverence to Wyland," Lawrance said Sunday as he waited for a freshly touched-up dolphin to dry in the intense sun. While the original artist used paint sprayers on some elements of the mural, for example, Lawrance used half a dozen paintbrushes of varying sizes. "It's going to look like my hand a bit."

They expect to finish within a few weeks.

The mural was the 46th of a series of 100 so-called Wyland Walls, sponsored by the Wyland Foundation from 1981 to 2008. The nonprofit organization based in Irvine, Calif., is dedicated to preserving the world's waterways and marine animals, and it is headed by the artist Wyland. Other murals in the series depict sperm whales, humpbacks, dolphins and orcas, and are painted on five continents and in 13 countries and 79 cities.

Former Mayor Kurt Schmoke dedicated Baltimore's mural Aug. 16, 1993, after Wyland painted it on a stop of an East Coast "Whaling Wall Tour," according to The Baltimore Sun. The artist signed T-shirts and books for fans who came to watch him work.

He had sought to paint on a blank wall of the National Aquarium that faced Pratt Street. When the aquarium declined, the project moved to the Russell Street building, then the home of Lee Electric Co., though Wyland said he would paint a second mural at the aquarium, if possible.

The aquarium's architect opposed it and public art advocates debated its appropriateness for the distinctive Inner Harbor structure, according to The Sun, and Baltimore was left with just one massive whale mural.