Moncton artist Jared Betts admits he’s a bit obsessed with lobsters.
“I always appreciated and loved the lobster, growing up,” he says. “I always loved under-the-sea creatures.”
Which is fitting, seeing as how he has been commissioned by the Town of Shediac to repair, sandblast, paint and maintain the biggest lobster in the world: the giant concrete sculpture that towers over Main Street.
The massive, 11-metre-long concrete sculpture is the pride of Shediac, drawing hundreds of thousands of tourists to the coastal southeastern New Brunswick town every year to see it, climb on it and have their photo taken with it.
“It’s really cool how much attention the lobster gets, it’s an amazing phenomenon,” Betts said.
But this constant influx of affection takes a toll — paint is scuffed, bits of concrete appendages are chipped — and so every year, just before tourist season, the lobster gets treated to an intensive makeover by a skilled professional.
Betts, a trained artist whose work has been shown all over the world, beat out hundreds of artists from across Atlantic Canada for the honours, and for the next 10 years, he’ll be the official keeper of the crustacean.
Qualifying for the job was not an easy task. The selection process was rigorous, the expectations high.
“They wanted to make sure it was a professional artist, someone who is able to use power tools, a wide variety of paints and different brushes,” Betts said.
“Someone basically who could get the crustacean job done.”
Fate seemed determined that he was that someone.
“It was quite amazing the way that things happened,” Betts said. “Because I was there sitting beside the lobster the day I got the email callout” for the job.
Now, he said, the hard work, and the fun, begins.
Pick a color, any color
For about two weeks, Betts will spend approximately 10 hours a day repairing, restoring, sandblasting, sanding, prepping and finally, painting the lobster sculpture.
And we’re not talking just a coat of red paint with black embellishments, here.
There could be as many as 30 paint colors involved.
“It has to be within the realm of what a live lobster looks like so we can’t go too wild, but when you look at a lobster you see that they actually have so many different colors on them, especially near the knuckles,” Betts said.
“We start with a big bucket of blue, red and yellow and from there… we just keep mixing different colours.”
But before any of this gets underway, he’s got some preparatory field work to do.
“Part of the job is to do lobster research,” Betts said.
That’s something he has always been keen on, but now that he’s become the keeper of the crustacean, he’s basically immersing himself in lobster lore.
He pays regular visits to the Shediac Lobster Shop processing plant, where they “bring out a lobster for me to look at so that I have an actual one to reference.”
He projects under-the-sea documentaries onto his walls at home and observes the lobsters.
And he loves checking out the fish tanks at Sobeys or Superstore to watch the lobsters, “just to kind of see how they move and get a feel for it.”
“So when I’m painting,” he said, “I’ll actually have all these live lobsters in mind for reference so that it can be as true as possible.”
Finally, when the weather is right, he’ll get going on the painting, and then varnish it to a glossy sheen, wrapping everything up in time for the town’s Canada Day celebrations on July 1.
Claws and effects
It’s no exaggeration to say that life in Shediac revolves around lobster.
“We are the lobster capital of the world, so obviously our identity is all around the lobster,” Shediac tourism development officer Jonathan Chevarie said.
“We have the lobster festival … most of the restaurants have an offering of lobster, we have local fishermen that do lobster fishing, we have a processing plant here, the Shediac Lobster Shop, that plays a key role in the resale and export lobster.”
The delectable creatures create thousands of jobs in a variety of sectors and lure hundreds of thousands of tourists to the town every year — an estimated 300,000 of whom make a point of having their picture taken with the lobster statue.
The giant lobster has been featured in the Amazing Race Canada television show and starred in commercials for Ford Canada and McDonald’s.
When you have that kind of pull, you’re going to get the celebrity treatment, Chevarie said.
“We’ve always kept it well-maintained because it’s kind of the identity of the town.”
The town covers the $5,000 annual cost of having an artist dedicated to the sculpture’s care, with Shediac artist Monette Léger doing the honors for the past 20 years and mentoring Betts last year.
For Betts, it all feels like destiny and a dream come true.
“I’m under-the-sea obsessed, you can basically just call me Ariel,” he said.
“I just think lobsters are such incredible creatures.”
Betts’s artwork is on display in galleries across Atlantic Canada, including Moncton’s Apple Art Gallery, Saint John’s Spicer Merrifield Gallery and Gallery 78 in Fredericton, and at the Greater Moncton Roméo LeBlanc International Airport.
SHEDIAC’S BIG LOBSTER: THE COLD, HARD-SHELLED FACTS
- Shediac’s giant lobster is the largest lobster statue in the world.
- It was proposed by the Rotary Club and unveiled on June 30, 1990.
- It was constructed by New Brunswick sculptor Winston Bronnum.
- It’s made of concrete, steel and rebar.
- It takes about eight gallons of paint to cover the entire lobster.
- It was originally painted in much darker colors to resemble an uncooked lobster.
- Over time it was changed to be more colourful, to resemble a cooked lobster.
- It weighs 90 tonnes and measures 10.7 meters in length