Pemaquid lobsterman turns wood into marine beauty

First published in the MLA Newsletter, May, 2012

Darren Bailey’s mother didn’t mind her children making a mess. That, recounted Bailey, a 37-year-old lobsterman who fishes from the Pemaquid Fishermen’s Cooperative in South Bristol, helped his three siblings and himself feel free as children to create things. That childhood freedom translated into artistic adults. Bailey now makes fine-quality wooden sculptures of fish. One sister is an architect, another is a potter and a brother works as a carpenter.

Darren Bailey, a Pemaquid lobsterman, has been carving since he was a young boy. Photo by Melissa Waterman.

Working with his hands seems almost a genetic trait in the Bailey family. “My mother was known for her chickadee paintings,” Bailey explained. “I would sand [her wood canvases] for a nickel when I was a kid.” His grandfather was a patent maker working in the early part of the last century in Newcastle. A patent maker took the blueprints for a specific item, perhaps a gear in a larger piece of machinery, and then created that item in wood. A cast would be made of the wood piece and from that cast, the item could be produced in quantity.

Bailey took an interest in the outdoor world at a young age. Growing up in Damariscotta Mills, he spent his spare time fishing in Damariscotta Lake or hunting ducks in the area. “My mother started making duck decoys with me because I liked to go hunting,” Bailey recalled. “Then I started carving fish because I like fish.” His mother let him use his grandfather’s carving tools. By 7th grade, Bailey exhibited his duck decoys at a school fair. By 8th grade, he was a licensed taxidermist. “I was catching fish all the time and wanted to keep them,” Bailey said with a smile.

It was about that age that Bailey started lobstering. “One of my sisters married a fisherman and I began sterning with him when I was 13,” Bailey said. He continued as sternman for seven years and then started lobstering on his own. “I had 75 traps that I hauled by hand from a 16-foot skiff,” Bailey said. He then moved on to a 23-foot Parker which he fished for several years before recently buying to a 32-foot H&H Beal. “Before my boats were always set up on the starboard side. This one’s port side,” Bailey said, rotating his shoulders gingerly. “Takes some adjusting to.”

A brown trout carvinig by Bailey. Each scale was painted individually. Photo by Melissa Waterman

Bailey is alert to what he sees on the water. “You never know what you are going to catch,” he said. He has a rare ability to translate the creatures he encounters into sculptures made of fine wood. Bailey’s codfish, flounder and brown trout are carefully crafted of mahogany, walnut, maple and cedar. The brown trout’s scales are individually hand-painted, giving the piece a natural look. “I entered [several sculptures] in the Maine Sportsmen’s Show in August in 2010,” Bailey said. “And I left with three blue ribbons.”

Currently Bailey is working on a sculpture of alewives. This means spending a good amount of time at the alewife ladder in Damariscotta Mills, studying the movements of the fish. “Some came in the other day,” Bailey said. “But it’s a long wait.”

When Bailey isn’t lobstering or carving his sculptures, he and his girlfriend Alison Sirois are manufacturing compost at their home in Jefferson. For the past three years they have collected waste lobster and crab shells along with clam, mussel, oyster and shrimp shells from local restaurants and a nearby seafood processor. “Dan Reny, of Muscongus Bay Lobster [in Round Pond], has been great,” Bailey said. “He set up stations [at the restaurant], made the staff take the bands off before cooking the lobsters, and then stored the shells in barrels in the refrigerator. He took it seriously because it promoted his business.”

Cod, brown trout, and flounder crafted by Darren Bailey. Photo by Melissa Waterman.

Bailey collects up to ten 150 to 200-pound barrels each week for three to four months as well as sawdust from a local lumber mill, horse manure from a local farm, and peat moss from N.C. Hunt in Damariscotta. The elements are mixed together at his property and then, many months later, packaged as Fisherman to Farmer compost. “The name means that there’s a range of ingredients in there from sea to land. It’s sort of a circular system,” Bailey explained. After three years, Bailey and Sirois are ready to sell their product, which is approved for use in organic gardening. “It’s at the Sheepscot General Store now and will be at Louie Dow’s, Ames Supply and N.C. Hunt in May,” Bailey said. “You can always get it direct from me though!”