Ogunquit artists and former sternman Amy Kelly stands amid some of her lobster-inspired work at a pop-up gallery in Portland on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. Kelly credits her time working on lobster boats with helping her recovery. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

PORTLAND, Maine — In 2015, Amy Kelly of Ogunquit found herself homeless, jobless, directionless and wracked with vertigo from years of hard drinking. Once a business owner supervising scores of workers, Kelly was at the end of her rope and down to housesitting.

“I was shot from alcohol and Xanax,” she said. “I was one drink from dead.”

Then, Kelly met a crusty, local lobsterman at an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting and went to work as a sternman, stuffing bait bags with dead fish and shifting heavy wire traps on his boat.

But instead of being the last stop on a voyage to oblivion, the grueling toil helped save her life.

The rocking boat cured her balance problems, the exertion kept her sober and gave her the clarity to find a new, artistic mission as a full-time photographer and gallery owner.

Now, Kelly is looking for ways to defend the lobstering life she credits with rescuing her own.

Seeing it under multiple attacks from federal regulators and well-meaning, but mistaken, environmental and whale advocates, Kelly has taken to fundraising, organizing town hall meetings and advocating for lobstermen with customers in her seaside art gallery.

Ogunquit artist and former sternman Amy Kelly stands amid some of her lobster-inspired work at a pop-up gallery in Portland on Tuesday.; A lobster-themed piece of Amy Kelly art hangs on the wall. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“It feels like a passion,” she said. “I know this is the right thing to do.”

Kelly’s life has always been close to the sea, in one way or another. As a teenager in New Jersey, she would shuck hundreds of oysters a day, working at a local clam shack. Later, in the 1980s, she moved to Ellsworth and ran a lobster-themed fitness club.

Eventually, she started a health care business in Ogunquit, a seaside town known as a gay-friendly summer retreat, during the height of the AIDS crisis. Kelly said she cared for many friends as they died from the terrible disease.

The agony of their passing made her drinking worse, as she used alcohol to dull the pain.

“I drank over their deaths — plus, I’m a ‘more is better’ kind of person,” Kelly said.

By 2015, partly because of her drinking, Kelly had lost everything and was constantly sick and dizzy with vertigo.

Then she began learning the ropes on a lobster boat at age 56.

“It was a dramatic way to fix myself,” Kelly said. “And it did — within 36 hours.”

She credits the rolling boat deck with quickly retraining her vestibular system, restoring her balance.

“And when I went home, I slept like I was in a coma,” Kelly said. “I loved it. I was too tired to drink.”

To be clear, hard lobstering work wasn’t the only thing that kept her away from the wine bottle but it certainly helped, she said. Kelly also credits AA’s 12 steps, her spiritual practice and her art.

“I had always been an artsy person but I’d never really thought about making it before,” she said.

But while working on the lobster boat, and feeling better than she had in years, Kelly began taking photos of the crustaceans, then manipulating the images with a computer. After creating a few small prints, she decided to make a giant version, as well. It was an instant hit, selling at her first art show in a yoga studio.

“Remember, I’m a ‘more is better’ person,” Kelly said.

In 2019, Kelly stopped working as a sternman, devoting much more time to her budding art career. This year, she opened her first gallery, on the water in Ogunquit’s Perkins Cove.

“I went full-time because I had to,” Kelly said. “There was so much demand.”

Now, nearly all her prints are huge — up to six feet tall — and lobster-themed. The bold, bright-colored pieces are ink-jetted onto special paper and then coated with glossy, textured finishes. Some pictures have fish netting embedded onto the surface. They’re as much about size, surface richness and sheen as they are about the subject — and impossible to ignore.

Kelly now sells her work both in her own T al e Spin Studio in Ogunquit and at a Maine Art Collective pop-up exhibition on Middle Street in Portland, which was just extended through December.

With her art career taking off, Kelly is determined to help preserve the lobstering way of life that gave her so much. She started by donating a large art piece to a Maine Lobstermen’s Community Alliance fundraiser in Boothbay Harbor last year.

The Community Alliance is the non-profit arm of the association.

That’s where she met Kevin Kelley, the alliance’s director of advancement, and immediately asked how she could help more. He coached her on how to be a clearinghouse for information about lobstering’s impact on the community.

A lobster-themed piece of Amy Kelly art hangs on the wall at a pop-up gallery in Portland on Tuesday, Sept. 13, 2022. Kelly credits her time working on lobster boats with helping her recovery. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

“People like Amy are important because they understand the big picture,” Kelley said. “They know that if you follow the chain from boat, to dock, to bait dealer — the industry means so much to the entire state.”

Kelly has been doing so in casual conversations in her gallery, educating tourists and locals alike, stressing that it’s not a lobstermen versus whales situation.

Instead, she tells people new federal regulations do nothing to help whales while definitely harming lobstermen. Kelly said she fears offshore federal regulations will eventually creep into state waters, closer to shore.

She’s also hoping to help organize a town hall-style meeting in Ogunquit within the next few weeks to bring lobstermen together with other locals to find out how they can support each other and to make sure everyone has the facts straight.

“Because people just start making things up when they don’t know things for sure,” she said.

Fellow pop-up artist Jennifer Pope of Freeport appreciates Kelly’s drive to make a difference. Pope’s son is a 23-year-old lobsterman on Swan’s Island who just invested in a boat and traps after going through the state’s apprenticeship program.

“Awareness about what’s at stake is key,” Pope said.

Far from where she started that first, dizzy day as a homeless sternman in 2015, Kelly is now stoked with desire to make more bold pictures while also making a difference.

“It’s not even about the art,” Kelly said. “It’s what’s happening around the art. It’s getting me where I’m supposed to go.”

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.