Can a guitar save the whales?

Six-string activism
By NANCY KIRSCH  |  April 16, 2014

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AQUATIC AXE The Whale Guitar-in-progress.

Just as whales travel in groups called “pods,” Jen Long gathered a pod of creative colleagues to help create the Whale Guitar.

Luthiers Rachel Rosenkrantz and Gwen Forrester, artist William Schaff, laser artist Jess Rosenkranz, photographer Michael Cevoli, and Providence Public Library (PPL) Special Collections Librarian Jordan Goffin — they all helped shape Long’s “flash of an idea” into an extraordinary project: a hand-constructed, whale-shaped electric guitar made from mahogany, maple, ebony, mother of pearl, and enviro-friendly discarded white Corian to replicate the look of endangered ivory and scrimshaw.

Long’s personal story includes its share of white caps and stormy seas. Raised by Midwestern Republican parents, she has been a “stoner” (briefly) and self-described “fish out of water” in Catholic high school, a single mom of two boys living in public housing, a Cleveland Art Institute student with no financial help from her parents, and a successful toy designer at Fisher-Price and Hasbro. (She created the third generation of Hasbro’s wildly popular My Little Pony.) Today, she is a freelance toy designer, songwriter, singer, guitar player, and whale advocate who has combined her passions for music and activism. On the evening of Thursday, April 24, she’ll launch an exhibit at the PPL with a free concert where local guitarists will rock out with the Whale Guitar.

The exhibit, which runs until June 5, includes sketches and models from the Whale Guitar’s creation and the guitar, itself. Other display cases will house artifacts from PPL’s scrimshaw and logbooks collection, tools used to make the Whale Guitar, and information about dangers to whales and how to protect them. On the exhibit’s final night, the all-female a cappella choir with whom Long sings, Assembly of Light, will perform a free concert.

The Phoenix recently caught up with Long to learn a bit more about her project and her successful quest, after many attempts, to finish reading Moby-Dick.

Our conversation has been edited and condensed.

CAN YOU CLARIFY YOUR CONNECTIONS BETWEEN WHALES, MOBY-DICK, AND MUSIC? For me, Ahab [the crazed sea-captain protagonist in Moby-Dick] signifies man’s aggressive, egotistical pursuits. To me, Ahab [represents our focus on] wealth, oil, power, with utter disregard for nature; the whale represents nature. We can try to capture nature. . . but if we kill it, we’ll go down.

A “gam” is the term Herman Melville used [to describe] ships at sea, pausing their journeys to hail each other, create a moment of community, tell stories, sing. I [recently] had a chance to change my lifestyle and [get more involved with] whale fests, whale watches, whale art. The 160th birthday of Moby-Dick was in 2011. This is all floating around in [my] head, when my husband brought home a Japanese Yahama guitar.

WHY THE PROVIDENCE PUBLIC LIBRARY, AS A VENUE? PPL’s Nicholson Collection has an amazing collection of logbooks, records and letters, scrimshaw, harpoons, and photographs. It is the country’s second largest collection of whaling logbooks. The first is at the New Bedford Whaling Museum.

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