Painting the ‘Lobstering Women of Maine’

By Dagney C. Ernest | Apr 03, 2019
Photo by: Dagney C. Ernest Susan Tobey White is surrounded by her Lobstering Women of Maine, a series still in progress, at her downtown Belfast art studio.

Belfast — Anyone who has danced at the Blue Goose in Northport has seen themselves reflected by Susan Tobey White, whose work hangs over the entrance doors. These days, the Belfast artist is painting a different kind of dance — one of the elements and the sea and a longstanding, if unsung, tradition.

“It started with Suzanna, that one right there,” White said in late March, pointing to a large painting in her Church Street studio, just around the corner from Belfast Historical Society Museum.

In November 2017, White said she watched the painting’s subject unloading lobster traps at Belfast Harbor. A sternman on her husband’s boat, the woman was clearly in charge of her territory. White said she watched in awe.

“She unloaded every one of them and, hey, there's no way! My husband fishes; there's no way I'd be doing that,” White said.

The experience that snow-dusted day got White thinking. She’d painted many lobster fishermen over the years — but never a woman. That was going to change.

“I get these ideas, you know? But I don't think I've ever been so obsessed about anything,” she said.

Some dozen of the paintings born of that obsession will be exhibited this year at the Penobscot Marine Museum in Searsport, which opens for its season on Memorial Day Weekend. As part of the "Gone Fishing!" exhibit, “Lobstering Women of Maine” will fill the walls of the Old Town Hall, one of the historical buildings of PMM’s downtown campus.

The large canvases are filled with the day-to-day details of making a living hauling “bugs.” Props around the studio testify to White’s determination to get it right — bait bags and buoys hang by work easels, along with a Grundens strap given to her by a company rep at this winter’s Fishermen's Forum. One prop, however, did not take up permanent studio residence.

“My husband had some bait, and it was in my refrigerator here for the longest time! But I needed to get that,” she said, pointing to “Genevieve Loading  Bait  Stonington.”

The moment, in the acrylic painting of bait cascading into fish totes, initially was captured by photographer Gregory Rec, one of several photogs whose images serve as references for the series. White took some photos, but realized she needed the time to work in her studio. So other images came from the subjects’ families, friends and professional photographers Rec, Murray Carpenter and Jeff Dworsky.

“I am so appreciative of their willingness to share their work,” White said.

She also took the advice of a friend to let someone else — “a wizard with words!” — handle the explanatory writeups that will accompany the paintings at Penobscot Marine. Telling the stories of Maine’s female lobster fishermen has been the driving force of this work, and the information White’s gathered has found its way into both the paintings and the essays.

“The women send me information and talk to me. And I've been in connection with Beverly McAloon at Swan's Island, who has compiled a whole exhibit of photographs and history of women who fish. Also Tinker [Crouch] at the historical society in Stonington,” she said.

Another woman, the subject of “Sadie  New Season  Rockport,” and a former art student of White’s in the Belfast school system, put the artist in touch with Genevieve McDonald, who created a Facebook page to help coordinate the growing pool of painting subjects. McDonald, captain of her fishing vessel, recently collaborated with Grundens on a line of oilskins appropriate for fishing women.

“I learned that these women know each other online, but they haven't actually connected a lot face-to-face, except maybe at the Fishermen's Forum,” White said. “So there is going to be a reception at the museum, which is wonderful, because it's centrally located.”

As White began to produce paintings last year, she asked friends, including Kevin Johnson, photo archivist at PMM, to advise her as to what to do with them. After all, there were a lot of them — and they are big.

“I was just wanting these to have a lot of impact — I wanted a real ‘pow!’ factor,” she said. “And I felt a real responsibility to the women.”

Johnson brought over PMM colleagues, including Curator and Collections Manager Cipperly Good. Good spotted a painting from a different series, one that contrasts party dresses as worn in the past and present, on the studio wall. “Jolene” pictures a little girl, wearing a tutu, peering intently over the edge of a dock with a dip net.

“Cipperly saw that and said, we've got to have that — it's the future,” White said.

White’s Lobstering Women of Maine series is ongoing (those who want to suggest a subject are encouraged to contact her via susan@susantobeywhite.com). Perhaps, like her Dance series, she will explore the theme for years. But her approach to those paintings is very different from her current self-identified obsession.

“When I do the dancers, I pour colors on and I just kind of do this [gesturing brushstrokes] and then the dancers appear … But description is important here,” she said. “I've realized there are people who know nothing about how that lobster gets on their plate.”

Sometimes a commitment to realism makes for unexpected delight. By the time she was finishing “Yvonne  Vinalhaven,” the painting’s subject had acquired a few more tattoos.

“And this arm was good, I’d nailed it! But it actually was fun and, again, it adds to the story,” White said.

The stories she’s heard working on the series, both from the fishing women themselves and historical sources, keep her at it. This day, White is preparing some smaller canvases to see if she can realize some of those stories in a less monumental format.

“It's not a new thing. Women have been fishing alongside their husbands for a long time, but the idea of them being captains is kind of new,” she said. “I find it just really exciting.”

“Lobstering Women of Maine” will open, along with Penobscot Marine’s other 2019 exhibits, Saturday, May 25, and run through Oct. 20. The free public reception will be Sunday, July 14, from 5 to 7 p.m. White’s Painting from Photos workshop, which will draw from the museum’s extensive collection of historical photographs, is set for Saturday, July 27; registration, via email to jganskop@pmm-maine.org, is due by July 19.

White’s work on her Lobstering Women is taking precedence over her usual studio schedule of acrylics and watercolors workshops, but the GOLDEN Acrylics Certified Artist Educator does plan to offer something in late summer. For more information and to see more of her work, visit susantobeywhite.com. And for more information on the 2019 season at PMM, visit penobscotmarinemuseum.org.

Comments (1)
Posted by: Michael Corden | Apr 06, 2019 17:39

Such a wonderful theme for a series.  For all who love Maine, whether Maine-born or adopted or aspiring, any of these lobstering women whose image might grace a family home would soon become a part of that family.



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