By Liesel Schmidt
July 25, 2022
SANTA ROSA BEACH – Coming over the bridge into Santa Rosa Beach, the view of all that lies before you is breathtaking: the sky, the water, the absolute majesty of nature. And as your eye explores the skyline, it lights on one particular burst of color that seems to demand attention: A massive depiction of a Rice’s Whale, seemingly swimming up toward the clouds. But this is no ordinary whale, and the story behind it is no ordinary tale. It begins, in fact, with a dream shared by an artist and a chef, using an unconventional canvas for this incredible work of art that embodies the uniqueness, the unconventional spirit and beauty of the 30A community.
And so we begin at the beginning, when artist Andy Saczynski approached Dan Tinghitella, the COO of Jim Shirley Enterprises, about an idea to create a life-size whale art installation. Tinghitella, in turn, mentioned it to Jim Shirley, who was preparing to open his new restaurant, North Beach Social. The result was a collaboration between the two men that brought Saczynski’s vision to life and gave Shirley’s new venture a wow-factor unlike anything in the area.
“Jim has been supporting Andy’s work for years, so he felt confident that whatever went up on the wall would be breathtaking,” explained Madison Shirley, director of Brand & Storytelling for Jim Shirley Enterprises. “What makes this particular installation remarkable, though, is its ability to embody Jim and Andy’s passions and aspirations for the local community. It’s not only a beautiful piece of artwork, but it’s also a message of preservation of the natural world. Rice’s Whale is just one example of endangered species – some still undiscovered – that make the Gulf Coast the slice of heaven that it is. Engaging with locals and visitors alike in such a beautiful statement is sure to leave guests thinking about how they can positively impact their community and world.”
Having created other pieces for Jim’s restaurants, Saczynski knew that the collaboration would be well matched. And, given North Beach Social’s location, the installation seemed a natural fit.
“When thinking through the piece’s placement, there was no better spot than North Beach Social,” Madison contended. “Not only does it make a dynamic backdrop for our guests and events, but it is a fantastic way to welcome visitors coming across the bridge into Santa Rosa Beach.”
As a restaurant whose space is designed to bring people, families, and artists together in a daily celebration of good food, the local community, and the stunning Choctawhatchee Bay, North Beach Social is a concept whose aesthetic – and ethos – perfectly assimilates Saczynski’s work.
“This piece fits nicely into our vision, from the reclaimed materials used in making it to the symbolism of instruments and schools of fish across the whale’s body,” Madison explained. “It’s a taste of what makes Santa Rosa Beach beautiful and North Beach Social so special.”
Delivering his materials to the restaurant property on Feb. 8, 2022, Saczynski began the actual construction and installation of the piece the next day. After cutting, layering, placing and carrying pieces of plywood up scaffolding to create the whale and then painting it with spray paint and house paint, Saczynski spent a total of 55 hours on his masterpiece. At completion, the whale measured 30 feet wide and 12 feet tall, using a total of 800 pounds in materials.
But why this particular whale? As he began planning his piece, Saczynski came across an article about a whale he had never heard of called Rice’s Whale, named after Dale W. Rice. It was Rice who first published evidence that Bryde’s whales are present in the Gulf of Mexico in 1965, thus earning him the namesake. According to NOAA Fisheries, Rice’s Whales are members of the baleen whale family Balaenopteridae. Fewer than 100 individual whales remain, making Rice’s Whales one of the most endangered whales in the world. Consistently located in the northeastern Gulf of Mexico, Rice’s Whales are the only resident baleen whale in the Gulf of Mexico and are most closely related to Bryde’s whales.
“After finding out that these spectacular whales call our part of the Gulf home, it just made sense to use them as the inspiration for the piece,” said Saczynski.
With its whimsical style and imaginative conception, the whale is a benediction on the restaurant, a welcome to its guests, a reminder of just how special a place the 30A community is and what an invaluable gift it has in its natural surroundings.
North Beach Social is located at 24200 US-331, Santa Rosa Beach. Open Monday through Friday 11 a.m. to 9 p.m., and Saturday to Sunday 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. No reservations are accepted. For more information, visit northbeach.social.com or call 850-622-8110.
Photos by Lori Saczynski