By Jen Alexander
Come the beginning of November, the Acuario Nacional de Cuba (National Aquarium of Cuba) in Havana will have two beautiful large-scale murals painted by local artist Shannon Wiley and none other than American artist and conservationist Robert Wyland. With the help of local Cuban artists and children in the Havana area, this will be the last large-scale mural project that Wyland will ever paint.
“It’s kind of the end of an era,” said Wiley. “People don’t realize how difficult it is to stand on those risers and paint while you’re high up in the air. He’s been doing this a long time, and although it’s personally rewarding, it’s really exhausting work. Wyland’s mastery of painting on a larger-than-life scale, and the accurate portrayal of the species he chooses, is beyond compare.”
Established in 1960 to focus on research and environmental education, the aquarium, dolphinarium and host of various sea lion shows will showcase its two new walls inspired by the plants and animals that surround its boundaries, as well as the history of the aquarium.
According to its website, the National Aquarium of Cuba is a scientific research center that specializes in environmental education and disclosure of the flora, fauna and ecology of the marine environment. Its main objective is to increase both culture and education concerning care, conservation and rational use of the sea, its resources and coasts.
The exhibits displayed at the aquarium resemble coastal zones of many of the islands and keys of the Cuban archipelago. They include a nearly 50,000-gallon tank for the exhibition of 30 different specimens of marine turtles, along with a mangrove forest and samples of coastal caves along the island chain.
While a team of artists will stay in Cuba for about a week to help complete the underwater scene, Wiley was asked by Wyland to be his lead assistant for the upcoming mural.
“It is the single greatest experience of my professional life to be invited to work with, and learn from, such an accomplished and knowledgeable marine life artist,” said Wiley.
The pair met two years ago when they were refurbishing the mural at Marathon’s K-Mart plaza. An email sent by Wiley to the renowned painter highlighting the former’s expertise and achievements soon earned an invitation from Wyland to be a part of the project.
“One time we painted together, we were 30 feet in the air,” said Wiley. “It was extraordinary because I’ve been a fan of his ever since I was a little kid. He is nothing short of generous and thoughtful as can be, and it’s such an honor to work with him.”
The K-Mart plaza project was “Whaling Wall #87 – Florida’s Radiant Reef,” which was originally painted by Wyland and Guy Harvey in 2001. The updated mural includes a mother and calf humpback whale with various fish species – and an octopus added in 2022.
Other past collaborative projects include the mural at the Waterfront Brewery in Key West. The iconic mural graces two sides of the seaside brewery at Key West’s historic seaport and features a large manta ray, a hammerhead shark, turtles and local corals.
The last team-up by the artists is the patio deck mural on the side of the Crane Point Museum and Nature Center’s gift shop in Marathon. This mural features bottlenose dolphins, sea turtles and local landscaping.
When not collaborating with famous artists or teaching the skill at Stanley Switlik Elementary, Wiley is proud to be a youth sports coach and donate his time and skills to worthy causes – just ask Looe Key Reef Resort, which accepted his donated painting “The Wave” for its recent Lahaina Luau wildfire relief fundraiser. Wiley’s portfolio includes paintings, etchings, sculptures and large-scale murals that can be found throughout the U.S. and the eastern Caribbean.
“I am proud to have provided my artwork for projects at Disney, Dick’s Sporting Goods, Radisson Resorts, CocoKey Water Parks, HHGregg Department Stores, and TGI Friday’s restaurants, among many others,” he said. “I am always eager to collaborate with other artists on even the wildest projects, and I pride myself on ‘always growing’ in my love for, and my skills in, art.”
More information is at shannonpwileyart.com and wyland.com.