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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.
Long ago, women perhaps primarily served as shore-side support for their lobstering husbands. They would get up before dawn to make a breakfast and lunch hearty enough to keep a lobsterman cheered during hard work in cold weather, and help mend trap heads and paint buoys in the off season.
According to the exhibit, as boats got bigger, the men needed more help and in the 1950s women got their lobster licenses to go to sea alongside husbands, fathers, grandfathers and brothers.
Nowadays, just 200 out of 4,500 commercial lobster fishing licenses in Maine are held by women, but more women work as sternmen. They fill bait bags and measure, weigh and band lobsters.
“Many continue the family tradition,” a sign at the exhibit states. “In all the roles they have held, women’s work is essential to the success of Maine’s lobster fishery.”
The strength of those family traditions is clear from the stories of many of the lobstering women White painted, with permission, from photographs taken by family members, photojournalists and others.
There’s Leah, from Swan’s Island, who is shown painting traps, and who learned lobstering with her sister aboard their grandfather’s boat when they were young children. And there’s Sadie, from Rockport, who told White that sometimes she feels like she was born to lobster in Maine and who fishes from the F/V Must Be Nice, which she bought with her sister when she was 20.
“She and her sisters grew up on her dad’s commercial fishing boat,” the story next to her portrait recounts. “He had his own version of ‘daddy daycare,’ setting Sadie and her sisters in fish totes while he worked. Getting older, Sadie always wanted to join him. He often left before sunrise, telling her she could come if she was at the door with her boots on. So, she slept by the front door — boots on — to make sure she did not miss a day.”
Another woman painted by White, Genevieve McDonald of Stonington, said she is looking forward very much to a special reception for the exhibit next month at the museum.
“I can’t wait,” said the lobster hauler, who also is serving her first term in the Maine House of Representatives. “It’s a wonderful opportunity to showcase women in the industry. And the paintings are amazing. It is a great honor to be painted.”
She said that while she feels lobstering is something of a gender-neutral industry at this point, it’s still nice for lobstering women to get this kind of recognition. Not that long ago, it wasn’t an everyday occurrence to see women on the water, but that has changed.
“Especially as a mom with daughters, I’m really excited for them to grow up knowing about these other powerful women in the industry and knowing they can do anything,” she said of her 14-month old twin girls. “They’re never going to know it’s unusual for women to be in the industry.”
“Lobstering Women of Maine” will be on display at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport until Oct. 20. The free public reception is from 5 to 7 p.m. on Sunday, July 14. Artist Susan Tobey White also will run a workshop on painting from photos at the museum on Saturday, July 27, with registration required by July 19.