Watermen at Work

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The seas are tumultuous. The small commercial boat rocks back and forth as it rides over the swells. The two lobstermen are unperturbed. This is their occupation, and this is just another day of work.

The men have close to 600 traps scattered throughout the sea, and as their masterful hands work the lines out of the water, the labor begins to resemble a dance. While the waves are not enough to disrupt the work, they never turn a blind eye to the sea—the generous yet unforgiving body of water that allows them to make a living but that is ready to swallow them whole if they make one fatal error, if one leg becomes wrapped in a line. It is this gravity, this seriousness, that artist Robert Beck depicts in his oil painting Stormtide.

“There’s a big concern out there on the water,” says Beck, who lives in New Hope, Pennsylvania, and for years has accompanied commercial lobstermen on their boats in the remote village of Jonesport, Maine. “When you see a big wave, you know it can have consequences, you know it can have impact, so the water is always on a fisherman’s radar.”

The lobstermen in Stormtide are father and son-in-law, who have fished together for many years. Working alongside your family members is not uncommon in the small village of 700 households, the residents of which harvest nearly $2 million worth of lobster each year. It’s one of the reasons that Beck regularly returns to Jonesport.

“People grow up next to their relatives learning the family trade,” he explains. “There’s something very right, very truthful about the whole thing. But it also has all those dangers that come with how they’ve done things for centuries. It’s a dangerous way to make a living.”

It’s a gravity that cannot be conveyed in just the static action of the two men working together. That’s why Beck emphasizes the enormous mass of the sea, which is powerful and infinitely expansive. He does not work from a photograph, but instead attempts to express an emotion that photos cannot capture, picking and choosing the elements he feels the viewer needs to understand what it feels like to be aboard the boat.

Beck didn’t grow up boating, but he was attracted to the sea when he left his corporate job at age 40 to pursue painting after studying at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. He first came to Maine to paint the sardine carrier Grayling at Hylan & Brown in Brooklin. He then made his way up and down the state to capture its rocky coast. Eventually, he landed in Jonesport, which, he says, feels like a step back in time.

“What drew me up there was the romanticism of boatbuilding and fishing,” Beck explains. He has since developed a reputation for chronicling the Maine coast, which led to him having the first solo painting show at the Maine Maritime Museum in 2016, where he showcased 56 pieces. Stormtide is being exhibited by the Michener Art Museum and the American Society of Maine Artists this year. 

This article was originally published in the September 2021 issue.

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