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Susan Tobey White and the "Lobstering Women of Maine"

a man and a woman standing in front of a store

This International Women's Day, we're excited to feature a woman who uses her talents to showcase women who challenge the notion that lobstering is a man's job. Susan Tobey White is an artist based in Belfast, ME, whose series of acrylic paintings, "Lobstering Women of Maine," gives a glimpse into the grueling work of lobstering, and the women who are more than game for the challenge. We sat down with Susan to hear about how she got into painting in the first place, how she ended up documenting the fishing community in her hometown, and why she knows a thing or two about bait. 

Luke's: Tell us a bit about your background. Are you from Maine/Belfast originally or did you move from away? 

Susan Tobey White: My husband and I moved here from northern Connecticut in 1975 as part of the back to the land movement. We purchased 40 acres of land where we built a home, and raised and processed our own food to the point of churning butter, and canning and freezing the veggies and meat we raised. At this time we raised a few sheep and used the wool for spinning, weaving and knitting that I was doing at the time. My creativity was vented through gardening, fiber arts and doing art projects with my 3 young children.

Luke's: What drew you to art and how did you become a painter?

Susan Tobey White: I come from a family of skilled craftsmen where I was encouraged to be creative. I remember loving rainy days as a child because I knew my mom would pull out fun projects for us to do.

When I went to college I majored in art education where I continued to focus on crafts, mostly pottery. It wasn’t until I lived in Maine that I began painting. I took a watercolor workshop at the Farnsworth Museum. Although I really enjoyed it, I was still weaving, and had 3 young children. It wasn’t until we had moved to Belfast and my children were in high school that I started seriously painting. 

Luke's: You've also taught art in Belfast (including to an artist who now works at Luke's!). Is teaching a passion of yours and why is teaching art important? 

Susan Tobey White: Yes, I consider myself equally artist and educator....passionate about both.  I was an elementary art teacher where I learned to bring concepts to the basics. In the past 17 years I have been teaching adults. I have been certified by Golden Acrylics as one of their artist educators which has added to my teaching. 

Luke's: Why is it important?

Susan Tobey White: There are two comments I hear in most classes. 1. “My brother or sister was the artist in the family, but I always thought I had something.... and 2. “Art was a huge interest of mine, but, I needed to make a living.....” 

As an educator  it is my goal to give my students the skills to be confident in their ability to create. It is also a goal of mine to bring awareness of the importance of the arts in our lives. It is truly all around us....and yes, you can make a living using your creativity. 

I strongly feel that if we deny our need to create it can affect us emotionally and physically. 

Luke's: How did you first get connected to the lobster industry? 

Susan Tobey White: My husband has held a commercial fishing license for over 30 years. When he first began fishing I used to go out with him baiting bags, measuring and banding lobsters. I understand the work involved.

Luke's: What's special about the lobster industry in Maine in your eyes? 

Susan Tobey White: There’s the obvious..the magnitude of the industry.  For me, I’m impressed by the fact that Maine still has strong fishing towns. Of course, they are changing, but are still there, unlike so many other areas where they have all but disappeared. 

Luke's: And what spurred the idea to paint a series focused on women of the lobster industry specifically?

Susan Tobey White: The idea began with Suzanna. I saw her on the dock in Belfast Harbor in November at low tide, snow on the dock unloading stacked traps from the boat onto the dock then to a pulley that hauled them to the parking lot where they were placed in the pick up truck.  The light was perfect. I thought , “I have painted many men fishing, but, never a woman.”  That simple idea is how it began.

"Suzanna - Last Haul," by Susan Tobey White

Susan Tobey White: I wanted the painting to be big, really showing her strength and the enormity of her task.  As I was painting the idea grew to include some more women. I talked to Sadie, who fishes from Rockport Harbor (a past student of mine from when I taught elementary art). My next painting was of her carrying traps to the boat at the beginning of the season.  She told me of a woman from Stonington who had created a community of women who fish to canvas Grunden's for the need for a woman’s line of rain gear.  She was my next subject using a reference photo by photographer Gregory Rec of her pouring bait into a bucket on her boat.  (For this one I also had a triple bagged bag of bait in my studio for reference!)

a man riding on the back of a truck

"Sadie," by Susan Tobey White

Susan Tobey White: As an artist, ideas are easy, follow through........?  I was determined these were going to be completed. So, I did something... unusual for me (I am a Leo)... I asked for help. With the help from many members of the lobstering community, the word was spread of my idea and I got responses which not only included women of all ages, but a young girl as well.  

As I heard from these women I began gathering their stories finding them to be fascinating. With the help of a recent graduate from college the stories were put in a cohesive story form.

It took 14 months to reach my goal with the result of an exhibit at the Penobscot Marine Museum for their 2019 season. I was overwhelmed with the response of the viewers, from women my age from a generation of limited choices for careers, to younger women seeing these women as roll models. Most of these women fish 600-800 traps as commercial fishermen.  

This idea has evolved to be much more than I ever expected. It has an education piece as each painting illustrates one aspect of lobstering, it's honoring Maine traditions and family and is of course, about women. 

Luke's: Who's the most interesting or unique woman you've met and painted in the process of working on this series? 

Susan Tobey White: I really can’t answer this....Each one has their own story and I find them all fascinating. Several have had the experience of growing up on the boat working alongside their fathers and grandfathers. Others started later in life and have equally interesting stories.

Luke's: What's the one most important message you hope people who see this work take away from it?

Susan Tobey White: My first thought was coming from a need I had to paint these women showing their strength. I am from a generation where there were such limitations for most of us on what was expected of a woman upon graduating from high school (secretary, nurse, teacher, housewife).  

My second thought is that I hope that these paintings may be of interest to people who may not usually seek out fishing topics and may become more aware of the challenges that fishermen are now encountering.

Luke's: Anything else you'd like us to know about you, your work, or this series?

Susan Tobey White: I am continuing the series including some smaller paintings. I'll be having a show in Rockland, ME at Archipelago Gallery in the fall and will be showing reproductions at Schoodic Arts this summer. Details will be on my website.

a group of people posing for the camera

The artist, third from right, pictured with her subjects.