“When pigs fly” is a somewhat archaic expression that refers to something that will never happen. It is also an apt description of a particularly unique art project in Guilford that very soon will be embodying that old saying in a more literal sense.
Adams Middle School student Gianna Modzelewski’s “Merpig” sculpture will soon be embarking on a transatlantic journey to Spain, the first step of a potentially much longer international tour that will engage Guilford students in a dialogue on environmental issues with other students and educators around the world.
Manufactured from various discarded, mostly plastic items, the Merpig is actually one in a long line of art projects that have made their way from Guilford to destinations around the country and the world, according to art teacher Joe Bernier, who oversaw the creation of the sculpture.
Bernier traced the history of this initiative to 2011, when another student-made sculpture called the Rakefish Project began traveling. The Rakefish, currently in Japan, was funded by the Guilford Fund for Education (GFFE), which awards grants and funds to special projects in Guilford schools to “enhance the Guilford educational environment and experiences,” according to its website gffe.org.
Evolving from there, the project has since seen Guilford students send a handful of other art projects out into the world, Bernier said, with the program being re-branded as “Sea of No Plastic,” an umbrella under which the Merpig will travel. This project is now sponsored by Faulkner’s Light Brigade, Bernier said, an organization that advocates for environmental causes particularly focused on Faulkner’s Island off the coast of Guilford.
This will be one of the first opportunities since the early days of the Rakefish for students in Guilford to directly interact with other kids who will be hosting a Guilford art project, which is meant to spark ideas about some of the impacts of plastic pollution particularly in watersheds and along coastlines, according to Bernier.
“I describe this as a research through art opportunity,” Bernier said, “to learn mostly about the harmful impacts of single use plastics on ecosystems on wildlife, on people.”
When the Merpig reaches Getxo on the north coast of Spain in the next month or so, language teachers in Guilford will help facilitate videochat conversations between students at Adams and Colegio Europa during class time, which creates a sort of interdisciplinary experience combining art, Spanish language-learning, and environmentalism, Bernier said.
Guilford teacher Sarah May has a friend at the Colegio Europa school in Getxo, Bernier said, which is how the Merpig’s first destination was chosen. But after that, Bernier said he hoped that the sculpture might find more connections and continue to make its way across the world, allowing Modzelewski’s message and experience regarding the dangers of plastic pollution to reach even more people.
That message, and that experience is really the heart of the project, Bernier said. Because the Merpig is made from plastic waste gathered locally, it can represent a sort of singular example of something that communities all over the planet are experiencing.
Modzelewski said those concerns were very much at the forefront of her mind when she was putting together the sculpture.
“I know I wanted to make a difference,” Modzelewski said. “I knew that collecting bottle caps and trash [would be] kind of trying to save these single use plastics and use them for art projects instead of just throwing them out and letting land and sea creatures eat them.
“But I didn’t know it was going to be this big,” she noted.
As her Merpig crosses oceans to begin its journey and hopefully spark these sorts of conversations, Modzelewski said there was a very simple message she hoped the sculpture would convey.
“I want to help people open their eyes, because this is only like a tiny portion of what we throw away,” she said, “and there’s so much more [plastic] out there. So hopefully I can inspire people to be a little bit more conscious of what we throw away.”
Bernier said that message and those conversations can then begin to evolve as Guilford students use these conversations to learn more about the experiences and issues related to plastic pollution around the world.
“It’s a local thing but its also a global thing,” Bernier said. “So locally, they’re tied to the community through Faulkner’s Light Brigade…plus the GFFE and all the stuff that we do with the schools…but I hope this inspires other kids to be more involved, be more aware. That’s the end result of what we’re looking for, the have more people not just aware, but what can we do from there.”