From flotsam and jetsam of life, sculpture is born
For 30 years Cindy Pease Roe has lived in seaside localities in North America and Europe and sailed their waters, a witness to how the oceans are changing.
“It is this proximity to the sea that has influenced my art,” Roe said. But in addition to squawking sea birds, waves lapping against wharves and gentle sea breezes that you may hear, see and feel in her paintings, Roe brings at least one other element to her art: rubbish.
Roe, 57, lives on Long Island Sound, New York state, where, she said, she always finds brightly colored pieces of plastic lying with the flotsam and jetsam that washes up onto the beach.
With this waste she has developed a very special art — using all the plastics and other waste as materials to make sculptures, the overriding theme being the oceans, the dangers humankind poses to them and what we might do about it.
From a couple of feet away one of her works takes the form of a beautiful animal, but if you look a lot more closely you will spot the beach toys, bottles, combs, lighters, shotgun shells, straw and toothbrushes that went into creating it.
Marine debris is one of the biggest problems facing the world’s oceans and waterways today, Roe said, most of the debris washed up on beaches being plastic.
“My work consumes a small amount of waste from the ocean, but the message I make with my sculpture is significant,” said Roe, who has been in China with her works recently promoting that message, with the help of the United States embassy in Beijing.
In addition to drawing attention to marine pollution, she is engaged in what she calls “creating something of value from something that has none”.
The process of creating sculptures from waste is relatively easy, she said. She finds whatever she can on the beach, cleans it and then glues pieces together to get her sculpture.
Cleaning and sorting marine debris can be messy, but it is one of the most important aspects of her work, because her ideas on what form the work will take are shaped as she closely engages with the waste, she said.
When she began creating these works, she tried making wreaths containing messages such as a peace sign made of rope and plastic. After she placed this on the front door of her studio, it got people talking, she said.
“What is that made from?” and ‘”Where did you find the materials?” she was asked. The ensuing discussions inspired her to make more.
Whales are the most common theme and her favorite, she said.
“Whales represent a big idea and a big change. They are the largest animals in the ocean, and we don’t really understand them.”
They are an ancient symbol of creation and have been “global citizens” since time began, she said.
The whales Roe makes have become highly popular, and given that the materials that go into them cost her nothing, they can be highly profitable for her, selling for thousands of dollars each.
“People have begun to help by sending me rope they pick up from beaches,” Roe enthused, apparently delighted that her works are having a good influence on people.
Talking about whales, Roe is the most vociferous on the North Atlantic right.
They were so named because whalers in that ocean regarded them as a wise choice for hunting given that they floated after being killed, Roe said, adding that there are only about 300 left today.
Roe hopes that apart from drawing attention to the importance of protecting the oceans and seas, she is helping promote the protection of animals generally.
Her particular care for the oceans and the life in them goes back to her childhood.
During her youth she spent summers with her grandparents in Cape Cod, Massachusetts.
“It was there that I acquired a great respect for the sea and its myriad ways of informing and inspiring.”
Of the many other seaside towns where she has lived or spent time over the past 30 years, one of those whose memories she cherishes most is Sausalito, California, near the northern end of the Golden Gate Bridge and known for its boat yards and fishing industry.
“I saw those boat yards slip away day by day, and I wanted to capture them while I could before they disappeared.”
When people see her sculptures, their first reaction is “Oh this is fun”, she said, and then on closer inspection they realize how they tell a story about the lives of oceans and the influence of waste on them.
“The very thing that makes plastic so versatile and durable is what makes it a big part of our marine debris problem — it’s almost indestructible.”
The most commonly used plastics do not simply disappear. Instead, they break down into smaller pieces that can become food for marine life, and which may end up in our stomachs.
“Litter can come from a city hundreds of miles away from the ocean. It moves through storm drains into rivers and other bodies of water, and eventually makes its way into the ocean.”
It needs to be remembered that we need everything from the oceans, but they do not need us, she said.
Cindy Pease Roe