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Art Aquatic

by emme martin | photography by lori saczynski

Nature has always served as the best inspiration for art. Whales, in particular, have been creative and literary muses for centuries thanks to their vast size and elusiveness to shore dwellers. Northwest Florida–based artist Andy Saczynski belongs to the ambitious category of artists who have pursued a life-size replication of the mysterious creatures. Saczynski was determined to make this vision a reality, and what better place to do it than the artfully aquatic community of South Walton, Florida?

As Saczynski is an awarded artist in the area and his work has graced the walls of Chef Jim Shirley’s restaurants for years, it didn’t take much convincing for Jim Shirley Enterprises (proprietor of Great Southern Café, The Bay, North Beach Social, Farm & Fire, and The Meltdown on 30A) to get on board with the project in early 2021. Shirley and his team feel deeply about creating more public art destinations in Walton County for visitors and locals to enjoy, and this was a perfect opportunity to start that initiative at North Beach Social on the shore of the Choctawhatchee Bay.

Saczynski planned the wood and mixed-media sculptural mural, loosely based on the Rice’s whale species found in the Gulf of Mexico, for over a year before installing the piece at North Beach Social in February 2022. | Photo by Nathan Saczynski

Not only was Shirley on his side, but so was fate when Saczynski came across an article about "Rice’s Whale." The endangered whale species is in dire need of preservation, with likely fewer than one hundred individuals remaining. Saczynski learned that the unique whale is consistently found at the continental shelf break in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico, usually at depths of one hundred to four hundred meters. The artist decided that his project would honor Rice’s whale through a loose interpretation of the species. He hopes the sentiment brings awareness to their preservation and pays homage to the magnificent creatures that call the Gulf home.

With the basis for the project in place, Saczynski and Shirley decided that North Beach Social would be the best canvas for the extensive feat. The two-story structure offers a large wall overlooking the bay that allows the whale to serve as the perfect backdrop for musical and fun-filled afternoons and evenings at the restaurant’s outdoor seating area. Meanwhile, guests upstairs at Farm & Fire restaurant might catch a glimpse on their way in or out if they head across the back patio!

On February 8, 2022, after about a year of planning and with the execution process already underway, Saczynski delivered pre-cut pieces of wood to the site, where he began to outline the shape of the whale. He pieced together the installation throughout the week, starting with the tail and head. The installation process made quite a spectacle for restaurant-goers, but according to Saczynski, they didn’t seem to mind—some even came to watch. Next, he continued the installation process, which involved completing the structure of the whale’s body, adding more layers of wood, and painting it in his signature abstract style.

Chef Jim Shirley and artist Andy Saczynski with Saczynski’s new whale mural at North Beach Social in South Walton, Florida

After five days and a lot of hard work, the result was a massive array of bright turquoise details, swirly fish in the whale’s belly, and guitars on the tail that pay tribute to the days and nights full of live music at North Beach Social. The project was not for the weak, as Saczynski estimates he used and carried over eight hundred pounds of wood for the life-size mural. Nor was it frivolous, as it was essential to the artist to keep waste at a minimum, a feat in which he succeeded.

It is easy to marvel at Saczynski’s ability to execute such a large project. However, the vision and purpose behind it are even more significant. Saczynski’s concept embodies some of the best parts of the local community—an appreciation for the arts, dedication to preservation, and a desire to make life more beautiful. He and Chef Shirley hope the installation will bring viewers a sense of joy that will spread through South Walton and beyond, and we have a good feeling it already has.

— V —

To see more of Andy Saczynski’s art, head to AndySaczynski.com. For more information on North Beach Social and Farm & Fire, visit ChefJimShirley.com.

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