For the past six months, a 10-foot-long whale sculpture has been in progress in environmental artist Marnie Sinclair’s Damariscotta studio.
In May that sculpture will be transported to the New Bedford Whaling Museum in Massachusetts, a gift from the artist inspired by the museum’s exhibit of Reyna, a 49-foot female North Atlantic right whale skeleton. According to the nonprofit Whale and Dolphin Conservation, Reyna was struck and killed by a large ship off the coast of Virginia in 2004. Reyna was 10 months pregnant with her first calf.
The New Bedford Whaling Museum was founded in 1903 to preserve the history of a region that was once home to more than half of the world’s whaling vessels. Today the museum is on the leading edge of whale preservation, engaging in scientific research, promoting understanding through history and art, and encouraging visitors to “examine complex and sometimes difficult topics that are shaped by our past, remain critical today, and inform a sustainable future.”
Sinclair met with the museum’s chief curator, Naomi Slipp, in the fall of 2022 to discuss the project. She recalled standing in the main hall of the museum below the huge skeleton.
“And way in the back, near the tail was this little bundle of a skeleton,” she said.
That skeleton was the unborn baby whale that died with its mother.
“I think it’s important to honor that baby,” Sinclair said.
The museum liked the idea and soon Sinclair’s studio was filled with the makings of the whale – a metal frame, a tail and fins molded from wire mesh, and boxes and bags of single use plastic.
Sinclair is a process artist, more interested in the method, in how to accomplish her vision, than in the medium used. She teaches herself how to use whatever materials will bring her vision to life and revels in the trial and error.
“There are so many accidents that happen in art,” she said. “If you don’t get uptight about it, you learn so much.”
For the whale project, grocery store salad containers overlap to create the creature’s exterior and plastic will fill its interior as well.
Using plastic waste as a medium for her art is something Sinclair has done before. A life-size octopus crafted from plastic cups dangles from a tree outside her studio. A sculpture of a seal bound with seaweed and filled with plastic sits next to it.
Sinclair names her creations. The octopus is Stella, the seal is called Seamore Plastic. She named the whale Kin because “I want everybody to understand that we’re family,” she said.
Sinclair designed Kin to look “free and lyrical” so she made the sculpture to be hung, but said that several different methods of display have been discussed, including posing it atop used tires to accentuate its environmental message.
Sinclair writes a brief scientific summary for all her pieces. The research she does into issues of climate change and pollution is an important part of her process. She cited Plastic Oceans International, a nonprofit organization with a goal to end plastic pollution, as an important source of information on the issues she is addressing with the creation of the whale sculpture.
According to Plastic Oceans International, 10 million tons of plastic go into the ocean annually and one million marine animals are killed by plastic pollution every year. By 2050 there will be more plastic in the ocean than fish, a possibility that Sinclair hopes her work can help highlight.
There are only 340 right whales left according to a 2022 report from the North Atlantic Right Whale Consortium, a collaborative data sharing group dedicated to the preservation of the endangered species.
Sinclair wants visitors to the New Bedford Whaling Museum to understand what might be lost, to see the beauty of the species in the sculpture she’s creating.
“I want them to appreciate that every species has its grace,” she said. “That we are part of the environment (and) we are creating our own extinction … Our way of living is so immediate … looking for instant gratification for ourselves at the expense of creatures that don’t have a voice. Maybe I’m looking for this silent whale to have a voice.”