Monday, September 19, 2011
The Thrill Of Experience
I was visiting a local art gallery recently, something I love to do, when I stumbled upon a painting that stopped me in my tracks; The artist had depicted a lobsterman in an un-natural act. He (the lobsterman) was depicted leaning over the rail of his boat, reaching down to grab the spindle of his lobster buoy. Now, far be it from me to disparage someones painting--and it wasn't bad, it had pretty colors and everything-- but the painter had no clue about lobstering and it showed. For starters, a lobsterman never leans out below the side of his boat. One ill-timed wave, and he is treading water in heavy rubber boots and stiff polypropylene bib. Instead, he uses a long stick with a hook on the end, called a gaff to hook the line under the buoy. The artist also depicted the lobsterman in some form of craft that bore no resemblance to an actual lobster boat. Now before you think of me as some stuck-up know it all, (I'm not stuck-up!) I do know of what I speak: I used to work on a lobster boat.
Ah, the things we do for art... several years ago when I lived on the coast of Maine in Cundy's Harbor, I signed up to work on the Mary Ellen II, a beautiful lobster boat run by a great guy named Charlie Saunders. I wanted to do the work to get as much insight and experience as I could for future use in my paintings. A lot of folks paint lobstering scenes from a distance. You know, pretty white boats bobbing about on a beautiful blue ocean on a gorgeous summer day. I wanted to depict it from the lobsterman's point of view. (An idea I still think has some merit). So, to be accurate in my portrayal of the lobstering industry, and get some good painting ideas, for the lobstering season of 2007, I went to sea.
The first thing one needs to know about lobstering is: it's damn hard work! Everyday was an eight hour workout on a pitching, rolling gym. Lobster traps only weigh about thirty pounds, but we hauled two hundred and forty or so a day, so after awhile, they felt a lot heavier than that. I was loading the traps on board one day early in the season when I wrenched my back so bad I could barely walk. Here's what you do when that happens-- you keep working.
The operation goes like this; the Captain pulls the boat alongside a buoy that marks his "string" of traps-- anywhere from two traps to ten on a continuous line. (We had five on a string), he pulls them aboard and starts taking out the "keepers"-- lobsters of legal size. My job was to pull out and measure the lobsters too, then re-bait the trap, put the trap on a plank called the "trap rack" that ran down the center of the boat, put rubber bands on the claws of the lobsters to keep them from eating each other, re-fill the mesh bags that held the smelly bait, and avoid getting caught up in miles of line snaking under my boots. The Captain then dropped the string back to go catch more lobster, and headed off to find another string. Over and over and over again... More than once I had a large, pissed off lobster clamp down on my hand with his crusher claw as I tried to band him. Here's what you do when that happens-- you keep working.
The wire-mesh traps are easy to grab and toss about, but I tore a tendon in one of my fingers from the constant pull and strain against my knuckles. I've had regular cortisone shots to loosen it up, but to this day I still can't close my right hand enough to make a fist. Here's what I did when that happened-- I kept working.
The bait we used was herring. It was preserved by salt, an age-old way of preserving dead fish. We would pick up a few hundred pounds of "fresh" bait in the morning, but by mid-day it was far from lively. The stench was bad, but the liquid of decomposing fish flesh that would pool in the trays the bait was in was worse. It would splatter on my face, squirt into my eyes, and flick up into my mouth. Tiny fish bones dripping with this goo would pierce my gloves and inject itself into my fingers and hands. The result is getting something called bait poisoning, and I had it several times that year. Here's what you do when your fingers are painfully red, swollen and infected-- you keep working.
The season dragged slowly along, summer shifted into fall, and along with the change of seasons came autumn storms. I have never been one to get sea-sick, but I was laid pretty damn low when ten foot swells tossed our boat about in the month of November. What do you do when you're fifteen miles out to sea with a pounding headache, tumbling stomach, rubbery legs and generally feeling sick as a dog? Need I say? You keep working.
I do have some fond memories. I've seen whales, porpoises and schools of tuna dancing in the waves. I've seen lobsters larger than you could imagine. I've witnessed all kinds of spectacular weather effects. And I did take thousands of photos while I was out there. The ocean is a beautiful, lively being, and I studied it every day from a seat in a classroom that only Mother Nature could provide. I have tried to show my respect for all of those in the lobstering industry by being as accurate as I can be in my paintings.
Maybe some time in the future I can do paintings of the fabulously wealthy. Should be fun to research-- after all, I do like to get first hand knowledge before I paint. And besides, while I'm not positive, I doubt they'll give me bait poisoning.