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Artist Cindy ease Roe in her studio in Greenport. Credit: David Benthal

This is part of a series of northforker magazine looks into the workspaces that help shape some of the artistic work being done here. The series was written and photographed for our ‘Creativity Issue,’ now on newsstands.

Cindy Pease Roe does the kind of work that “takes over a space,” she said on a recent morning, blue eyes sparkling as she showed off her studio at Port of Egypt Marine in Southold. A warm breeze filtered in through the large, open front door. The sound of gulls screaming from the nearby waters of the marina and the sight of boats docked nearby provided a fitting backdrop as she spoke passionately about “making art that talks about a difficult problem.”

Roe is a multimedia artist, accomplished in photography and painting, but these days her space is devoted to one technique: creating marine-themed sculptures out of ocean debris. She was inspired to add another medium to her repertoire 11 years ago, when she moved to Southold and was shocked by the amount of trash she found during walks on the beach. She began turning it into art, and the project she calls Upsculpt was born.

Roe is now in her third summer working out of her studio at Port of Egypt. The small one-story building with an ocean blue exterior and white trim once served as a carpentry shop, used by the grandfather of the marina’s third-generation owners, Yvonne and Will Lieblein. Their offer of this space has allowed Roe to have a dedicated studio for Upsculpt, which is now recognized as a nonprofit.

Roe has a lifelong love of the ocean. Growing up, she spent summers at a family beach house on Cape Cod, surrounded by thriving schools of fish and an abundance of clams on the shoreline. “My mom was a collegiate swimmer and taught us all how to swim at a really young age,” she said. “I would pretend I was mermaid or a fish or whatever. It’s that upbringing that I had that informed my work.”

The problem of plastics infiltrating the ocean — including microplastics killing marine life and entering the food chain — is one that doesn’t have an easy solution, but she said a simple philosophy drives her art. It’s distilled in a small, brightly colored painting on her studio wall that reads: Change Yourself, Change the World. “Whether it’s reducing your plastic footprint, or something else, you can’t wait for somebody else to figure this out,” she said. “We have to do this as individuals and as families and communities, and let that be the wave that goes out to the world.”

The artist’s piping plovers on the beach. Credit: David Benthal

In the center of the studio, folding tables display sculptures in various stages of progress: a mermaid made from rope and fishing line in shades of blue and turquoise; a collection of colorful humpback and sperm whales, including one named Soapy, with a soap dispenser top as a spout; a large wall-mount sailfish trophy, donated to Roe for use as the canvas for a new piece.

The surrounding walls are lined with shelving units, all stacked with storage bins holding raw materials, some collected by Roe during her beach walks, most sourced and donated by volunteers. Plastic debris of all shapes and sizes are organized by color; there are buckets of balls, large and small, cracked and abandoned beach toys, old fishing poles, buoys and a seemingly endless supply of fishing line, rope and netting. Another shelf has smaller containers with organized labels for items like lighters, bottle caps, shotgun shells, plastic straws and tampon applicators. It is reminiscent of Ariel’s grotto from “The Little Mermaid,” a trove of abandoned treasures that are given a new life in Roe’s capable hands. 

The finishing touch, for all her pieces, is a printed tag letting the buyer know what went into creating the art. The notes read: “Made with 100 percent unnatural materials.”