VANCOUVER, Wash. – As a little girl, Terry Marvin would listen to her father recount how her grandmother had toiled as a welder at Vancouver’s Kaiser Shipyard during World War II.
“I’ve got some stories of my grandmother coming home from welding with flash burns and putting raw potatoes on her eyes,” she said.
As a grown woman, Marvin has an opportunity to use her art to honor the dedication of her grandmother and thousands of other women who helped build the ships needed for the war effort.
Marvin is a member of Women Who Weld, a group of torch-wielding artists who specialize in welded metal sculpture. The group, at the city of Vancouver’s request, designed a waterfront sculpture commemorating the industrial contributions of women on the home front. The finished artwork would be placed near Beaches restaurant along the city’s waterfront trail.
A scale model of the sculpture has been unveiled. If the project proceeds according to a rough schedule, and if a $60,000 fund-raising campaign succeeds, the 11-foot-high artwork should be completed in time for an August regional celebration marking the 60th anniversary of the war’s end.
A symbol for welders
“Rosie the Riveter” is the enduring symbol of more than 6 million American women who worked in wartime factories. Rosie the Riveter performed her industrial magic in aircraft plants, piecing panels of aluminum into thousands of bombers and fighters that ruled the skies over Europe and the Pacific by war’s end.
Another fictional character, “Wendy the Welder,” never gained that same public prominence, but she more accurately represented women who worked in West Coast shipyards producing Liberty ships and other vessels.
Members of Women Who Weld searched for a depiction of Wendy the Welder, but they found no iconic rendering. So they settled on “Wendy Rose,” their own creation that plays off Rosie’s well-known name but is tailored to women who worked in the shipyard.
“Rosie is who people know,” said Sumi Wu, a member of the artists group. “I think what’s important about her is that everyone still knows who she is.”
The group’s model, made of poster board and plastic foam, depicts Wendy Rose stepping away from a tiny house, symbolic of a working woman stepping out from her traditional role. She is flanked by a partially assembled Liberty cargo ship and a half-built escort aircraft carrier, also known as a “baby flattop.” Tiny workers are positioned on ladders helping assemble the steel vessels.
Wendy Rose herself is both faceless and handless. She consists of little more than work clothes and a welding visor.
“I wanted it to be no one specific,” Wu said. “There were so many black workers who moved from the South to be here.”
Wendy Rose’s imaginary hair is tucked under a handkerchief, safely away from welding sparks.
“It does keep your hair from burning; we learned that by experience,” Wu said. “We all know the odor of burning hair.”
One ship a week
There is something fitting about the group’s plans: Women who have selected welding as their preferred art medium today honoring those who took up welding to assist in their nation’s defense a generation ago.
The women’s sculpture will recognize the Kaiser Shipyard’s role in shaping Vancouver’s history.
Immediately after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, the United States began gearing up to produce thousands of airplanes, tanks and ships for the war effort.
Henry Kaiser, a prominent industrialist who had helped erect dams throughout the West, shifted his focus to building ships. He and his son, Edgar, would operate seven shipyards on the West Coast, including one on the Vancouver waterfront a couple of miles upriver from the Interstate 5 Bridge. Workers poured into Vancouver from all over the nation. By November 1944, more than 10,000 women were working at the Kaiser Shipyard. Employment peaked a month later at almost 39,000 workers, more than twice what had been Vancouver’s entire population only three years earlier.
The shipyard turned out more than 140 vessels during the war, almost one a week.
Members of Women Who Weld say it was difficult to capture the intensity of those years as Americans committed themselves to defeating Germany and Japan.
“We all researched the history as much as possible,” Wu said. “It was a little hard to feel what it was like to work in the shipyard when so much was at stake.”
Each of the six women helped design the sculpture, and each will help weld it together using stainless steel, sprinkled with small amounts of glass and ceramic.
“We don’t want a piece of artwork to appear one day and no one know where it came from,” said Leann Johnson,Vancouver’s cultural services manager.
The women will have about five months to complete their work before the regional celebration marking the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, scheduled for Aug. 25-28 at the Vancouver National Historic Reserve.
The U.S. Defense Department selected Vancouver and five other cities for commemorations. The first event was held last month in Tampa, Fla., and subsequent commemorations will take place in San Antonio, San Diego, Boston, Chicago and Vancouver.
Final plans haven’t been made for how to display the artwork during the four-day celebration.
One possibility is to leave it on a flatbed truck so it can be easily moved to its permanent home along the Columbia River waterfront trail just east of Beaches Restaurant &Bar, close to where the Kaiser Shipyard operated 60 years ago.
Johnson said the city will need to obtain a shorelines permit to place the sculpture there. In addition, $60,000 will need to be raised since Women Who Weld don’t weld for free.
“There have been some feelers put out,” Johnson said. “I’m not going to name names, but there are some people who have said they will come forward.”