Students repurpose litter to create work of art with Cindy Pease Roe

Litter picked up from local beaches and transferred to a local classroom has been transformed into art and a significant learning experience.

Students at the Peconic Community School in Cutchogue, working with Cindy Pease Roe of UpSculpt in Greenport, created a 6×4-foot whale sculpture made of marine debris, including bottle caps, tennis balls, fishing gear, sneakers, washed up bits of indecipherable plastic and discarded rope.  

The art project is similar to one first completed in 2017. After years of wear and tear, school co-director Liz Casey decided to reboot it.

“We’ve been doing beach cleanups and using the garbage we collected,” Ms. Casey said. “Cindy reconstructed the steel frame. When the kids saw her videos of other sea creatures she created, there were lots of “ohs and ahs.”

The latest iteration of the “whale tail” debuted at the school’s Maker Fair on April 13.

“It’s all plastic,” said 10-year-old Nova Fernqvist of Aquebogue. “It’s like an example of saving the environment in a beautiful way. It’s really disappointing that humans litter.”

Her friend and fellow fourth grader Beatrice Ballve of Orient agreed. “It’s really sad that animals are getting hurt and we’re ignoring the problem,” she said.

About 95 students, ages 3 through 14, had a hand in the project.Each child chose a piece of plastic from a giant pile of beach littler from the school’s community room — weathered sand toys, sandcastle making tools and battered buoys — to attach to the tail’s frame. 

The completed whale tail at Peconic Community School is made from beach litter. (Deborah Wetzel photo)

“The kids are excited. They know the project is meaningful because we’re surrounded by water here and this is helping the earth,” Ms. Casey said.

Turning discarded items into art is Ms. Roe’s passion. The artistic director and founder of UpSculpt started picking up beach trash in 2013.

“The ocean is not a waste management system,” Ms. Roe said. “Don’t be afraid to clean up after someone else. It’s a great family activity to be outside, taking garbage out of the marine ecosystem.”

She believes that in the last 10 years, people are much more aware of the issues citing the number of volunteers who turn up for beach cleanups. “And for this project, kids are using their hands to create art,” she said. “We’re transforming something of no value into something that is valuable.”

The goal is that art can really tell a story and bring a community together.

Adelaide LeFort, 10, of Riverhead said it’s disheartening to see so many people throw things on the beach. “I feel sad for the animals that they are getting stuck in this junk,” she said.

Orly Blondes, 13, of Mattituck, added that “the whale’s tail teaches us how to be creative with this problem. It’s a beautiful way to showcase the change we need.” 

The completed whale tail will be on display at the Peconic Community school permanently in the school’s front garden.