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Every year, a 90-tonne cement crustacean draws thousands of visitors to this New Brunswick town. When it needs a new coat of paint, locals have strong, divisive opinions about what colour it should be. This time, Jared Betts is determined to get it right

Jared Betts has been commissioned by the town of Shediac, N.B., as the latest caretaker of the Big Lobster, an 11-metre-long roadside attraction.Photography by Darren Calabrese/The Globe and Mail

For most people, the seafood counter at the Sobeys in Shediac, N.B., is a place to pick up dinner. But for Jared Betts, it’s something else entirely: a research station.

Mr. Betts, the new caretaker of what is likely the most expensive, and most photographed, crustacean in the world, comes here to stare at the lobster tank. When staff notice him looking a little too long, he pretends to be checking the price on something else.

“I probably look a little bit crazy doing that,” he said.

Shediac’s Big Lobster, as it is affectionately known, is a 90-tonne, 11-metre-long cement monument that has been welcoming visitors to this beachside town since 1990.

With more than half a million people expected to visit the famous lobster this year, Mr. Betts is under pressure to get the sculpture’s annual restoration just right.

To do that, he has immersed himself in the underwater world of lobsters. He records them at the grocery store, studies them up close at a local lobster processing plant, and watches documentaries on the creatures. In his home, he projects videos of lobsters onto his walls, as if he’s undersea himself.

“I’ve gone almost obsessive with it,” he said. “But I want to get a feel for how they move, and all their different markings. It’s part of my research.”

Mr. Betts observes lobsters at the Sobeys seafood counter in Shediac.

New Brunswick’s roadsides are littered with oversized monuments. There’s a giant potato in Maugerville, a big blueberry in St. George, and the World’s Largest Axe in Nackawic. But none are as renowned as the Big Lobster, which in the summer months draws hundreds of tour buses full of people clamouring for photos.

In Shediac, which bills itself as the lobster capital of the world, the Big Lobster is a source of significant pride. Generations of Acadian fishermen have pulled lobsters from the nearby Northumberland Strait. Thousands of locals have worked in canning facilities that ship lobster worldwide. They love lobster so much here that there’s an annual lobster festival – and a separate festival just for lobster roll sandwiches.

“That Big Lobster has come to symbolize what Shediac is,” explained the town’s mayor, Roger Caissie. “It embodies our community, and it has put us on the map.”

Mr. Betts is fascinated by undersea life such as lobsters, which are a source of local pride (and a staple of local cuisine) in Shediac.

Mr. Betts studies his notes as inspirational footage of the ocean plays on a makeshift screen at his partner's home in Pointe-du-Chêne, N.B.

In scraping old paint from the tail of the lobster, Mr. Betts reveals the work of previous caretakers, such as a coat of white primer whose application caused a stir among the townspeople.

It should come as no surprise then that people in Shediac have strong opinions about their beloved Big Lobster. When Monette Leger, the lobster’s keeper for the past 25 years, applied a new coat of white primer a few years ago, there were concerns raised at town hall. “The town got a lot of calls that morning,” Ms. Leger said. “Some people thought someone was vandalizing the lobster.”

This spring, an unsuccessful motion to temporarily paint the lobster blue – about one in every two million lobsters in the wild are that colour – divided the townspeople. Others want the monument to look more like a boiled, red lobster, which they argue would make it more recognizable for tourists. Purists say it should have the darker, mottled brown, black and green shell of a live lobster pulled fresh from the sea.

“This causes a lot of discussion,” the mayor said, diplomatically.

Shediac’s Rotary Club began fundraising for the landmark’s construction in the mid-1980s, eventually paying $175,000 to Winston Bronnum, a self-taught New Brunswick sculptor who had already made a series of oversized, concrete roadside monuments, including St. Thomas, Ont.’s, Jumbo the Elephant and the Cow Bay Moose of Cow Bay, N.S.

Mr. Betts formally began his 10-year contract as the Big Lobster’s new caretaker earlier this year. As an artist who normally paints surrealist images on canvas, he said he’s enjoying working on a project that gets him out of his studio and allows him to interact with the public.

“There’s something about larger-than-life things. The most powerful art is art that disrupts your everyday routine and forces you to stop,” he said. “There’s a sense of fantasy, there’s a sense of wonder, and it just ignites something within you. It makes people smile.”

Mr. Betts studies his notes and samples of paint and textures from the Big Lobster.

Ms. Leger, who spent years finding the right epoxies, cement, paint and tools to help the Big Lobster recover from abuse by salty sea air and all those climbing tourists, has taken Mr. Betts under her wing. She’s teaching him the labour-intensive process of sandblasting, grinding, sanding, priming and painting, as he prepares to put in 10-hour days to perfect the lobster in time for the town’s Canada Day celebrations.

Working on a giant outdoor monument is challenging, she said. Wind storms can blow away paint trays, rain can wreak havoc and visitors sometimes walk past the artist’s barriers, stepping in wet paint while trying to get photos. But helping maintain a piece of public art that’s recognized around the world is priceless, she added.

Ms. Leger, 63, said she decided to pass the torch after the death of her husband, Raymond Nadeau, who used to work with her, handling the power tools needed to repair the lobster’s worn spots, chipped paint and moisture damage. She tried to continue that work on her own after his death, but it was too painful. “I cried so much the whole time, my shirt was wet,” she said.

This summer, she’ll be easing into retirement by selling her house and moving into an apartment – one with a clear view of the Big Lobster.

“I told Jared I’m going to just be across the way, watching you with binoculars,” she said. “So I’ll still get to keep an eye on it.”

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