From Canyon To Cove: A whale of a tale

After nearly 20 years on California license plates, Wyland's humpback "whale tail" has been replaced by a new design as of July 1, three years after Wyland and the California Coastal Commission had a public falling out over the agency's license plate program.

The special plate, which costs $50 more than regular license plates, plus an extra annual fee to the DMV, has reportedly raised more than $40 million for conservation and environmental programs in the state — outselling all other specialty license plates, according to commission officials.

Wyland, the internationally known marine life artist who started out at the Sawdust Art Festival and still has a studio here in Laguna Beach, donated the design to the agency in 1996 but became disenchanted when the commission refused to share any of the proceeds with his Wyland Foundation. (Actually, the foundation did get a donation of $20,000 in 2005; that's not chump change, but to Wyland it was a paltry offering.)

The "whale tail" began to unravel in June 2008, when Wyland gathered the press together in his South Coast Highway studio. He accused the commission of "bullying" him and demanded 20% of the plate's proceeds be donated to his charity arm.

Through his attorney, Wyland issued a 30-day notice demanding the commission cease and desist using the image unless they came to an agreement over sharing the profits.

A miffed Commission Executive Director Peter Douglas said at the time that the whale tail image was being used under the rubric of an "oral agreement," and that no formal licensing or any word on paper had been set down giving the state the right to use the design. That's pretty slack for a state agency.

Douglas also acknowledged that the agency had rejected many requests for funding from the Wyland Foundation, explaining that he considered such requests to be a conflict of interest for the artist, who, after all, had his design — and signature — plastered on vehicles all over the state, as per the oral agreement.

"The Wyland Foundation is indistinguishable from Wyland himself," Douglas told me.

Remember, this was 2008, and business-savvy Wyland no doubt could see that the art business in general was going south with the sinking economy; he has since closed two of his three galleries in Laguna Beach. Even Wyland, who spends most of his time in Hawaii and owns a nice beachfront lot in Laguna, was starting to feel the pinch.

According to an email from Wyland spokesman Steve Creech: "Wyland granted the Coastal Commission the opportunity to use the art to help save California's coasts and oceans. He never intended to give away the rights to the image in perpetuity — but to allow its use for a good cause.

"Over the last 20 years, Wyland has put in place national and community-based outreach programs about marine conservation — these were exactly the type of programs that the whale tail plate funded.

"Since Wyland created the whale tail plate, it seemed like a natural request to see if some of the whale tail plate funds could underwrite some of these programs, especially at a time when the nation's economy was falling apart and all nonprofits, including ours, were exploring all avenues to keep their programs alive."

But don't cry for Wyland: According to his websites, he is opening restaurants and galleries all over the country, and branching out to offer Wyland cruises and excursions, not to mention music. You've got to give this energetic creative credit for entrepreneurship.

In the end, Wyland's fit of pique resulted in the Coastal Commission launching a search for a new "whale tail" image through a competitive process, and, like any bureaucratic project, it's been years in the making.

The new image is a far cry from the tail that Wyland produced, which evoked a humpback moving languidly through the sea mist.

To me, the new whale tail looks more like a salmon or trout tail. But it does resemble a Wyland-designed whale tail on a similar Florida license plate program. Evidently there just isn't that much diversity in the business of whale-tail designing.

It took two artists to come up with the new whale tail license plate, and they will be paid $1,000 each for their services, according to a commission spokesman. And you can bet that this time the state got it all down in writing.

Interestingly, the Wyland Foundation website is still promoting the whale tail and has itself listed as one of the recipients of funds generated by the whale tail plate. But apparently there are still bitter feelings about the whole whale affair.

"We would say that the new design seems like a poor imitation of a Wyland artwork," Creech said in his email. "That being said, however, we've got more important issues to worry about and would like to put this behind us. We had hoped that Wyland might have been publicly recognized by Peter Douglas and the Coastal Commission for his service to the state of California for nearly 20 years, but there doesn't seem to be any intention from them to do that."

Maybe Wyland is hoping Douglas will send him a greeting for his 55th birthday and a donation for the Wyland Foundation's birthday wish fundraising drive. We'll get back to you on that.

But if you, like me, prefer the original whale tail, you're out of luck. The Wyland license plate design "is no longer available," according to the commission.

CINDY FRAZIER is city editor of the Coastline Pilot. She can be contacted at (949) 302-1469 or cindy.frazier@latimes.com.

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