What Exactly Happened to the Giant Whale Mural in Downtown Portsmouth, New Hampshire?
A few months back, I was headed to park in downtown Portsmouth in a lot I always knew as being “the one with the whale mural.”
When recounted this to someone later, they seem puzzled, and with good reason; I didn’t actually remember seeing the famous whale mural.
I remembered seeing it for the first time as a little kid. In the early '90s, it made Portsmouth feel like a city – the kind of thing you didn’t see in surrounding towns with smaller buildings.
In the fall of 2021, while people like me were distracted by other news or just taking our landmarks for granted, the whale wall came down. But luckily, the topic came up on a Portsmouth Facebook group and shed some light on why the whale went away.
A man named John Dunkle posted a picture of the mural, explaining that his mom helped artist Robert Wyland paint it in 1993. This led to a flood of comments, from people reminiscing about the mural’s early days before the paint started to chip away, to others lamenting that it wasn’t properly restored.
In fact, a poster named Georgia said:
“Mr. Wyland, did return & repaired it! He said, “it was the only painting that he ever had to return to repair. Because Portsmouth, did not take the Wyland correct steps to preserve it per his instructions.”
While several posts echoed the theory that the city just let the mural deteriorate (mostly from residents who feel Portsmouth has lost much of its uniqueness), another voice offered a different take.
Tony Coviello introduced himself as a member of the Portsmouth City Council from 2009-2013. Speaking of the mural, and Wyland, Coviello said:
“Myself, several councilors before me, and after several after me asked about getting this restored. We were told (Wyland) expressed no interest in returning to repair it. The arts community was brought in to discuss it…it was thoroughly discussed how we could restore it. The problem was that the brick underneath the paint was deteriorating. Actually, the act of painting the brick is probably what caused it to deteriorate.”
I do remember learning that you’re asking for trouble painting on brick so...that part checks out.
Georgia responded that she had spoken to Wyland, and while he had turned down the invitation to return and restore the mural due to scheduling conflicts, he also claimed the city had not followed proper measures to maintain it.
So, it seems a breakdown in communication or misunderstanding involving maintenance gave the Whale Wall the same fate as a nearby town’s colorful tire playground; sentenced to being just a memory.
It’s sad that this seems to happen so often in New England. Yes, the winters are brutal, but you see lasting art and landmarks in New York and Chicago. Even Minneapolis.
Could the whale resurface elsewhere in Portsmouth? Where would you paint it?