Leigh Martin Farnsworth works on her lobster-fishing gear on a dock in the upper reaches of Corea Harbor. ELLSWORTH AMERICAN PHOTO BY JOHANNA S. BILLINGS

Sisters at sea

SEARSPORT — Susan Tobey White’s series of paintings on lobsterwomen wasn’t planned.

It began with a visit to a nearby wharf where the Belfast artist, known best for her paintings of dancers, saw a female friend unloading lobster traps.

State Rep. Genevieve McDonald (D-Stonington) is depicted taking on fresh herring bait aboard her vessel Hello Darlings II. ALAN LAVALLEE PHOTO

“She was doing all the unloading and I was just blown away by what she was doing and how she was working,” White recalled.

Paintings have been done of lobstermen but not usually women. So White painted her friend.

“She told me about somebody else and it just kind of snowballed,” she said. “I really didn’t have any concept this [series] was going to occur until I was into it two paintings.”

The 13 paintings completed so far make up the show “Lobstering Women of Maine” at the Penobscot Marine Museum through October. A reception is scheduled for Sunday, July 14, from 5 to 7 p.m.

“I not only wanted to paint them. I wanted to hear their stories,” White said.

Gouldsboro resident Leigh Martin Farnsworth is among the lobsterwomen portrayed thus far in the series of acrylic portraits. Leah Ranquist of Swan’s Island and Genevieve McDonald also figure among the subjects.

Farnsworth, who fishes from the Gouldsboro village of Corea, took an indirect route into fishing.

During her senior year as a speech pathology and audiology major at the University of Connecticut, she was diagnosed with melanoma. Instead of preparing for grad school, she dropped out for treatment.

Although she went back to finish her bachelor’s degree, she said her prognosis wasn’t good.

“I was, like, well, why go to grad school?” she said.

She and a friend from New Hampshire came to Bar Harbor one summer to work on whale watch boats.

“I’d never even heard of Bar Harbor but it was better than Connecticut,” said Farnsworth. “I loved being on the water.”

While working with tourists, she couldn’t help but notice the local residents who made a living at sea.

“I’m looking out and every day you see the fishermen out there and I’m like this is what I want to do,” she said.

When given the opportunity to try it, she did and loved it, though she did try to find work in other fields.

“I just kept coming back to fishing,” she said. “Once you fall in love with it, you don’t want to do anything else. Nothing else compares.”

She worked for eight years as a sternman and began lobstering on her own 15 years ago. She enjoys the freedom that comes with being her own boss.

“You choose how you do it. You choose how much you fish,” said Farnsworth, who fishes 450 traps. “I could fish 800 traps but I don’t because I need time for my kids.”

Farnsworth met her husband, John, in Maine. The couple has two sons, Jack, 10, and Finn, 6.

Farnsworth fishes around the children’s schedule, which is part of the reason she fishes alone.

“It’s hard to find somebody that has the same schedule as me,” she said.

Another woman served as her sternman last year but she is not available this year. Although Farnsworth found the work to be much easier with a partner, she doesn’t want another person’s earning potential to be affected by her family priorities.

“If I just decided on a beautiful day that I’m not going hauling, I’m going to go to the beach with the kids, I can’t expect somebody else to give up a day,” she said.

The painting, titled “Leah,” shows Swan’s Island Leah Ranquist painting her buoys. The acrylic was painted from a photo by Alan LaVallee. Leah and her sister Lesley fish for a living. IMAGE COURTESY OF SUSAN TOBEY WHITE

Lobster season runs from June to October. Off season, Farnsworth maintains her gear.

“I like seasonal work. I like that there’s down time,” she said.

Farnsworth’s painting shows her rowing out to her 24-foot boat, Whiskey Fire. She has since sold that boat and replaced it with the 29-foot Priceless.

“I really wanted a painting of someone rowing out to their boat,” White said.

All the paintings are different. One shows a woman carrying traps. Another is of buoys.

“I’ve tried to have each [painting] illustrate a different aspect of lobstering,” White said.

A friend encouraged Farnsworth to send White a photo of her lobstering for possible inclusion in the series. She said she put it off but finally sent one.

White eventually decided to paint Farnsworth from a photo take by Ellsworth American Arts Editor Letitia Baldwin.

White said she is grateful not only to the lobsterwomen who have allowed her to paint them but also to the photographers her paintings are based on.

Farnsworth said she prefers not to attract attention. However, she said, she decided to do this for her mom, Pat, who still lives in Connecticut.

Farnsworth said White will be making prints of the paintings to give to the lobsterwomen featured.

“I’ll give it to my mom,” she said.

The museum, located at 40 E. Main St., Penobscot, is open Memorial Day through Oct. 20. Hours are 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and noon-5 p.m. Sunday.

For more information, call 548-2297 and visit penobscotmarinemuseum.org.

Johanna S. Billings

Reporter at The Ellsworth American
News Reporter Johanna S. Billings covers eastern Hancock County and western Washington County. An avid photographer, she lives in Steuben with her husband and several cats. She welcomes tips and story ideas. Email her at [email protected]

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