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Greenport artist turns plastic debris coughed up by the sea into sculptures with a message heard round the world

Cindy Pease Roe in her Greenport studio.Photo: Katharine Schroeder

In her light-filled studio tucked in a corner of a Greenport boatyard, artist Cindy Pease Roe is surrounded by junk and she couldn’t be happier.

Bins and bags filled with flotsam found on local beaches are piled high in every available space. To Cindy, none of this is garbage. Every bit of plastic, rope, and metal will be turned into sculptures and these will be used to educate people about the devastating effects the debris has on our seas and oceans.

Fresh from a month-long trip to China, Cindy is still recovering from jet lag. She sips herbal tea while Garbo, a cat rescued from the streets of Israel, purrs in her lap. “She missed me and now she just can’t get enough of me,” she says.


Photo: Katharine Schroeder
Photo: Katharine Schroeder

Cindy has just spent a month in Shenzhen where she built a 20-foot whale fin sculpture out of discarded one-use plastics at a shopping mall in OCT Harbour. The sculpture sits in a lake in the eco-friendly development where it will raise ecological and environmental awareness.

Cindy’s love of the sea is evident in the body of work she has amassed after spending her entire life painting, drawing and sculpting. The sea is a central part of everything she creates.

She spent every summer of her childhood at her grandparents’ house on Cape Cod. “I grew up swimming all day long, clamming, blueberrying; my brothers would be crabbing and fishing. It was idyllic and I love the sea. I swam all day long. My mom was a collegiate swimmer so she taught us to swim at an early age. Growing up that way you become a part of the rhythm of the ocean and the sea when you’re in it and around it.”

“My first real studio was above my brother’s boat shop. When I lived in California my studio was in Sausalito with a view out over a boatyard.”

So how does a nautical artist from the U.S. end up building a sculpture in China?

Photo: Cindy Pease Roe

“My grandparents happen to have been missionaries to China. They spent 25 years there; my mother was even born in a small village there. I developed a deep respect for the Chinese people and the culture. I was raised eating with chopsticks. I relate so well to the Chinese people because of the upbringing I had. My mom sang Chinese lullabies to me; I even had a Chinese doctor.”

“My stepdaughter and son-in-law currently work at the U.S. State Department in Beijing. He’s in the sector working on smog and air control and his counterpart works with water. They were discussing a presentation about marine issues in China and marine litter was one of them. My name came up and I was invited over in March. I went to four different cities, I spoke at schools, NGOs [non-governmental organizations in China] and consulates.”

One of the areas she visited on that tour was Shenzhen, and it was there that a gentleman in charge of the OCT wetlands project noticed her and ultimately reached out to her.

“Their mission is to integrate environment, ecological awareness, and commerce together,” says Cindy. “So I agreed to go.”

Cindy spent a month in Shenzhen constructing the sculpture in a studio and preparing it for installation in a lake at the development. But such a large project – the fin is about 20 feet wide – couldn’t be done alone.

Courtesy photo: Cindy Pease Roe

“I had a couple of assistants that were with me full time. They handled different aspects of the project. And then they handled the volunteers. There was a sign-up list; everyone wanted to volunteer because they care so deeply for the ocean and they want to protect it. They wanted to be involved in a public art program and I had as many volunteers as I needed on a daily basis. People of all ages volunteered. People my age; I even had a couple of seven-year-olds helping.”

Cindy has been creating sculptures from sea litter for years. Her passion for “upsculpting” began with a walk on a North Fork beach with her dogs.


“I noticed all the plastic on the beach. People don’t realize that the plastic on the beach breaks down into microplastic, which the fish eat. And we eat the fish. People don’t understand that the most important thing any of us can do is participate in beach cleanups. People need to know that [picking up trash] really helps and that’s something that is within all of our powers, that it’s something all of us can do.”

She gathered the bits of plastic and brought them back to her studio, where she began gluing them to wire forms, at first creating wreaths. After being invited to Oysterponds School to talk to children about her litter projects, she came up with the idea of creating a fish out of plastic and junk. She and the kids created the large sculpture which hangs at the entrance to her studio at Hanff’s Boatyard in Greenport.

Cindy spent the next few years creating sea creatures out of plastics and giving workshops teaching others to do the same. Her special affection for whale sculptures began after being asked to create a series of whale paintings for the Nantucket opening of the movie ‘In the Heart of the Sea,’ Ron Howard’s adaptation of Nantucket author Nathaniel Philbrick’s best-selling book about whaling.

Photo: Katharine Schroeder
Photo: Katharine Schroeder

“As much as I wanted to make the paintings, I couldn’t do it. I ended up telling myself that what’s really in the heart of the sea is plastic. I didn’t want to romanticize it. I ended up doing a whole collection of the upsculpt whale sculptures. At first the gallery owner was like ‘I wanted paintings!!’ but she ended up loving them and promoting them and sold the whole show out.”

Cindy feels that whales are the best vehicle to get a point across.

“They’re in every ocean, they’re big, they’re mystical….there’s a fondness for them, they’re warm-blooded like us so they really do make a good icon. It came about naturally, the whole Nantucket and the whaling thing.”

Photo: Katharine Schroeder
Photo: Katharine Schroeder

Cindy has created a website for her Upsculpt project which provides information and tips on getting involved. She sells “Upsculpt” kits for people to create their own whale sculptures using junk they find on the beach.

Note: If you would like to donate beach litter, please drop it off at Cindy’s studio at Hanff’s Boatyard, 190 Sterling St, Greenport. You can leave donations outside if Cindy is not there.


Photos by Katharine Schroeder, except China photos courtesy of Cindy Pease Roe

Katharine is a writer and photographer who has lived on the North Fork for nearly 40 years, except for three-plus years in Hong Kong a decade ago, working for the actor Jackie Chan. She lives in Cutchogue. Email Katharine