For many, the iconic image of the Maine lobsterman is a bare-armed salt in yellow oilskins with a weathered face and a confident eye who keeps tabs on the whims of the sea.
Oh, and he’s a man, too, of course.
But that’s not how Belfast artist Susan Tobey White sees lobstermen. White, who is well-known for her colorful, exuberant paintings of dancers, is married to a part-time commercial fisherman and has spent a lot of time in boats during the past 30 years.
“I know what it’s like,” she said.
Still, the artist was taken aback when she spotted a woman unloading lobster traps in Belfast Harbor in November 2017. It was cold, and snowing, but nothing seemed to slow her down.
“I was just blown away by how hard she was working — just seeing the strength of her,” White said.
So she grabbed her phone and started snapping photos, ending up with about 100 images. She also had the tiniest beginning of an idea that has just kept growing. White decided to turn her photos into a portrait of the lobster hauler, whose name is Suzanna. That single painting has evolved into an ongoing series, “Lobstering Women of Maine,” with about a dozen works on display this summer at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport.
“That’s how it began,” she said. “It just started evolving … there are so many paintings out there with the men. I’ve painted a lot of lobstermen. But this particular story is about the women.”
Her paintings are large and colorful and they seem right at home placed amid the permanent “Gone Fishing” exhibit in the museum’s Old Town Hall. It’s a good fit — a museum visitor can sit in a dinghy and examine tools used in the lobstering industry, then look at the paintings to see the dinghy, tools and other elements of lobstering in action.
“For us, it’s really exciting, because so much of what we do is the maritime history of the area,” Karen Smith, the executive director of the museum, said. “But we’re also preserving and sharing this ongoing culture. This is a great way to show what’s happening now in living color. It’s a really unusual experience that people can have.”
The paintings are named after the women, and each features a short description of what they do and how they began hauling lobsters in the first place. There is also context about the changing role that women have played in the industry.