“Wishing Whale” Hopes to Awaken Onlookers to Environmental Peril

Cindy Pease Roe at work in her studio.
Cindy Pease Roe at work in her studio. Laurie Barone-Schaefer photos

By Michelle Trauring

The 6-foot-tall steel whale tail stretches up toward the ceiling, its 7-foot-wide flukes parallel to the floor. It makes an immediate impression and, with enough clearance to walk underneath, begs to be explored, and explained.

The derelict lobster traps, abandoned plastic and tangled lines woven together across its surface tell a disheartening story — one about the garbage clogging up the ocean and its marine life, one the East End knows all too well.

But from underneath, by just looking up, the bleakness abates momentarily. Nestled within the tail are dozens of glass bottles filled with wishes, scribbled on rolled up pieces of paper, waiting to be granted.

The messages will remain forever private, known only to the original writers, though visitors can speculate on what they say. At least one wishes for a healthier environment, a cleaner ocean and a world that works together in harmony to make those happen.

Cindy Pease Roe at work on her whale.

That bottle belongs to artist Cindy Pease Roe.

She is the visionary behind “Wishing Whale,” which will be moved outside on April 22 and unveiled during an Earth Day celebration at the Southampton Arts Center, featuring a number of environmentally conscious vendors with a singular vision: making this world a better place, which includes bringing awareness to the ever-growing problem in the sea.

“Whales are in every single ocean like, unfortunately, plastic is today,” Ms. Roe explained. “They’re really a large presence, where people can relate to them. They can see they’re big and they can see the impact when three whales wash up on the beach and are dead because they’re eating plastic.

“We have got to wake up,” she said. “And we have to wake up fast because our ocean environment is changing drastically.”

The Greenport-based artist’s love affair with the ocean dates back to when she was a young girl, summering on Cape Cod. It was a simple time, she said, her days filled with berry picking, family bonding and, of course, countless hours spent at the beach. She swam every day and sailed while her brothers fished, their fresh catches adorning the dinner table as the sun set.

“When I was younger, I used to walk along the beach to pick up sea shells and sea glass,” she said. “And now I pick up plastic.”

Thirty years ago on the East End — when Ms. Roe first moved to Sagaponack — this was not the case. The farm fields were pristine, undotted by mansions. Traffic congestion was nonexistent. The beaches were unspoilt. It was a different era, and place.

With the changing times come a changed environment, she said, and relocating to the North Fork eight years ago alerted her to it.

“You don’t see it on the southern shore because of the way tides and currents work,” she said. “When I moved to Greenport, I was walking my dogs and I was shocked to see all the plastic that was mixed in with the flotsam and jetsam, the natural things that wash up. I brought it back to my studio and I made a wreath because it was around the holiday time. I hung it on my studio door and it started a dialogue.”

When her guests had questions, she wanted to give them answers. And so, she began to learn.

Every year, 8 million metric tons of plastic wind up in the ocean. That’s five grocery bags filled with plastic for every foot of coastline in the world. By 2050, it is predicted that plastic will outweigh fish pound for pound.

“I was horrified at what I was seeing but, at the same time, I was going out and picking up plastic and bringing it back to my studio and I started making things out of it,” she said. “And I was like, ‘This is really cool.’ Because as an artist medium, it’s entirely new. Everything you do with it becomes the first time you’ve done it, and it’s really exciting.”

At first, gallery owner Susan Lister Locke wasn’t so sure. Three years ago, she had asked the artist for a series of whale paintings, but when Ms. Roe went to pick up her brush, she couldn’t paint. It felt disingenuous, she said. So, instead, she picked up plastics.

“I was in my studio and I kept thinking, ‘What’s really at the heart of the sea is plastic,’” she said. “And so I made whales out of plastics. I couldn’t help myself. I called Suzy and I said, ‘I hate to tell you this, but I’ve made a bunch of sculptures out of plastics.’ And she’s like, ‘What?’ To her credit, she said, ‘Okay, send me some pictures,’ and when she saw them, she got right behind it.”

The entire solo show sold out over the course of that summer.

“I did not want to do historical paintings, or paintings of whales in the sea, because it made me sad,” she said. “ I don’t want to romanticize what’s happening. It’s a much bigger, bigger, bigger problem out there. So I said, let’s use whales to carry the message.”

The golden children of the ocean, whales are simply beloved, much like sea turtles, dolphins and penguins, Ms. Roe said, making them the perfect face for a cause.

“Whales are bigger than us, they’re larger than us and, unfortunately, this problem has been created by us,” she said. “The ultimate importance here is that if the ocean fails, we as a species will not survive it. That’s the big picture and the downside. The upside is there are a lot of really smart people working on solutions and I have faith in the human race that we’re going to figure this out.

“But we, as individuals, have to make an effort,” she continued. “You can’t expect somebody else to do it. We all have to do it. We all have to be a part of the solution.”

Her contribution is “Wishing Whale,” which is not the first of its kind. The inaugural tail was on view in China, but this particular tail is specific to the East End, she said. Not only was it created here—inside the walls of the Southampton Arts Center from start to finish—the artist sourced lobster traps retrieved from the Long Island Sound by Cornell Extension’s Marine Removal and Prevention Project, and invited locals to watch her build during open studio hours.

And it is their contribution that completes the project—and is, arguably, the heart of it.

“Each message is like a prayer. It does not need to be heavy. It could be, ‘I like those great jeans, I really wish I could afford them,’ or you could pray for a birthday cake if you want,” Ms. Roe said. “For me, I pray for the ocean, I pray for the ocean, I pray for clean air and water for everybody. It’s a wishing whale, and I hope all of these wishes come true.”

“Wishing Whale” by Cindy Pease Roe will be unveiled during an Earth Day celebration on Saturday, April 22, from 2 to 5 p.m. at the Southampton Arts Center. Participants will include Tesla, the Cornell Cooperative Extension Marine Program’s Fisheries Team, Perfect Earth Project with Edwina von Gal, April Gornik for Gimme 5, the Surfrider Foundation, Montauk Oceans Institute, Mary Wolk of The Bee’s Needs and Nancy Miller of Plan Bee Balms. Admission is free. For a full line-up of the day’s events, visit southamptonartscenter.org.