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Turning beach junk cleanup into art projects

Greenport artist Cindy Pease Roe, with fourth-graders from

Greenport artist Cindy Pease Roe, with fourth-graders from Greenport Elementary School, collect all sorts of junk on Truman Beach in Orient Point. (Nov. 19, 2013) Photo Credit: Newsday / J. Conrad Williams Jr.

If artist Cindy Pease Roe ever needs an extra dose of motivation to continue her work for clean beaches, she need only look in her Greenport workshop.

There sits the ultimate irony, a municipal recycling container -- from Waterford, Conn.

Pease Roe found it in 2011 washed up on the beach in Greenport, the same place she's found straws, spent shotgun shells, vacuum cleaner parts, disposable lighters and other plastic refuse.

It was especially disheartening for Pease Roe, who even at the most vagabond moments of her past found her constant in the water.

"Everything I do pretty much surrounds the sea," she said.

Roe, who moved to Greenport five years ago after years as a part-time Sagaponack resident, said she first noticed the waste on a gray beach day about four years ago.

"I was shocked," she recalled. "When I was walking the beach, the colors just started popping out at me. When I saw it was plastic, I was really deeply saddened. It was a very strong reaction. But immediately -- and very often this is how artists work -- I saw what I could do with it."

The result was her first wreath made of beach junk, which included a toothbrush, netting, a "funny little toy" she found and other items. She continues to make wreaths out of beach trash and sells them on her website,

What initially was just a cathartic reaction turned into a regular art endeavor for her. And this year her efforts are now bridging the gap between art and activism.

This is the third year Pease Roe has worked with local schoolchildren to comb the beach for things to make art with, but it's the first in which collected items were logged by the Rozalia Project for a Clean Ocean, a Vermont-based nonprofit that uses the information obtained to more effectively execute cleanup projects.

Pease Roe, whose work has been exhibited at the Islip Art Museum and the East End Arts Council, learned about the Rozalia Project two months ago from an online newsletter distributed by Connecticut's Mystic Seaport museum, and she contacted Rachael Z. Miller, Rozalia's executive director.

Like Pease Roe, a visceral reaction spurred Miller to action after competing in sailing events with her husband and being sick of what she saw in the water.

"From the rivers to the ocean, our problems are everywhere," said Miller, who founded Rozalia four years ago and named the organization after her late grandmother, a Russian immigrant.

According to the Rozalia Project (, non-biodegradable debris in the water endangers people and marine life. Plastics tend to break up into microscopic pieces suspended in water columns, and are then ingested by all sea creatures. There is evidence the toxins released by the plastics are introduced into the human food chain.

And because of their light weight, plastics are carried by ocean currents and have been documented to carry foreign and invasive species from one ecosystem to another.

In addition, marine mammals, seabirds, fish and turtles often die after ingesting plastics they mistake for food or getting tangled in plastic bags, synthetic lines, floats and even anchors.


Taking stock of the beach

After Pease Roe and Miller connected, Miller sent Rozalia intern Kaleigh Wilson to help Pease Roe and 47 fourth-graders at Greenport Elementary School hit the beach last month to find items and document them.

"It was blowing 35 knots [about 40 mph] on the beach, but despite this, the kids were really good sports," Pease Roe said. "They were really into finding whatever they could. It was like a treasure hunt -- a piece of rope, a piece of a toy. It's exciting because they like to run around, and they really love cleaning up their environment."

Some of the best memories of Pease Roe's childhood involved diving into the brackish pond behind her family's Cape Cod home. She still marvels at how well she could see as she swam below the surface despite the hybrid of salt and freshwater.

Pease Roe worked on a charter boat in her 20s, and since she moved into a full-time art career her inspirations have surrounded the sea, from "Nautical Musings" mixed-media works to a boatyard oil painting series. She helps the students who collect beach trash make their own art installations with the discarded objects.

This year's project stretched over three days in late November. On the first day, Pease Roe gave a presentation about the types of plastics found on the beach. On the second day she took the students out to collect beach trash, and afterward they took the items to Floyd Memorial Library and sorted through them. They picked up 611 items, the most common being bottle caps and lids (they found 119 of them). On the third day students crafted their treasures from the trash -- nine wreaths that are on display at their school.

According to Miller, knowing what is on the beach can sometimes help determine the location (for example, winds blowing items from a recycling center into the water) they came from. Information over time can also help volunteers more effectively time cleanups for specific areas so they can collect the most items at certain times.

"We do a lot of science, and we're trying to make science exciting through the education program," Miller said of Rozalia's work. "But art is exciting, too. Pease Roe's project [is] an excellent intersection between art and science."

Elizabeth Burns, a teacher at Greenport Elementary School, agrees. After the collection, students went back and made wreaths using the items.

"When they were finished Cindy had them sit in a big circle, and the room got very quiet," Burns said. "Children had this amazing moment of reflection that all this turned into [these wreaths]."

Pease Roe hopes one other thing was built -- a lifelong awareness of the importance of cleaning and protecting the world's waterways. "We eat out of the waters," she said. "Local people make a living. I swam in these waters my whole life, and I'd like people to be more aware of their health."


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