Artist Captures Spirit of Bridge Ironworkers With Memorial Sculpture
Janice Trimpe says she's been called the "common man's artist" because she sculpts everyday people. This winter, however, she created a sculpture of a Mackinac Bridge ironworker, a subject far from common.
These were men who labored for three years, working at heights up to 552 feet above the Straits of Mackinac, in good weather and bad, and almost always in windy conditions. Five workers died while building the structure in the 1950s.
Mrs. Trimpe's sculpture will become a memorial to the ironworkers who built the Mackinac Bridge, to be dedicated Saturday, July 28, at Bridge View Park in St. Ignace during the 50th anniversary celebration of the opening of the bridge.
The sculpture is a composite of a typical ironworker, said the Grosse Pointe Park artist, typical of the men who began building the Mackinac Bridge May 7, 1954, nearly 53 years ago.
"Everything is authentic," said Mrs. Trimpe, who has consulted with ironworkers on the clothing, work boots, tools, and the posture of the men. She made the clothing look like layered shirts, which were worn to keep warm. She replicated the gloves worn by the workers, using an original pair as a model.
The sculpture is a composite representing those who drove the rivets and tightened the bolts, and those who worked reinforcing the concrete. The workers were strong, agile, and had a great sense of balance, which she has tried to portray in the sculpture. The men often wore two tool belts, said Mrs. Trimpe, and they carried with them wrenches, hammers, picks, bags of bolts, and rope.
"It was very cold when they were up on the bridge," she said. "They wore overalls pulled way up so they wouldn't trip."
Mrs. Trimpe has designed the ironworker with his feet pointed slightly inward, as they would be for walking on one of the bridge's steel beams. Creating historic accuracy in these details would be easily overlooked by most people, she said, other than an ironworker.
She works in her 2,000- square-foot studio, about two blocks from her house. To accommodate her work, the building has 17-foot tall ceilings.
When completed, the bronze sculpture will stand on a beam, which will be set on a marble base. Aplaque will be attached to the base to honor ironworkers and the five men who died. They included three ironworkers, Albert Abbott of St. Ignace, Jack Baker of Pagosa Springs, Colorado, and Robert Koppen of Plymouth, laborer James LeSarge, and diver Frank Pepper.
The sculpted ironworker will stand more than six feet tall, but when she begins the sculpting process, the worker only stands a few inches high. Mrs. Trimpe began the project by sculpting a miniature clay model of what the actual piece will look like. Using photographs given to her by the ironworkers, she created the tiny version, and then transposed the likeness onto a core supported by a welded steel frame.
She models more than 600 pounds of clay onto a foam core to shape the ironworker. Over a period of eight weeks, Mrs. Trimpe works with the clay, creating precise details.
"It's a very time-intense project," she said. "It's 30 years of experience and eight weeks of work."
When the sculpting work is finished, the preparation for bronzing begins. The clay sculpture first is covered with a rubber compound and that is covered with plaster. Once hardened, the plaster molds are removed section by section. The sections are numbered and a diagram is prepared for the foundry, where it will be converted into a bronze statue. From plaster, the pieces are formed in wax, which is dipped in a substance that can tolerate the molten bronze. When the bronze cast is complete, the pieces are welded together and seams are smoothed.
Eventually, steel rods will secure the sculpture to the base.
In the end, the original clay sculpture is destroyed, because, eventually, it dries, cracks, and deteriorates. She is used to that, but the ironworker was different.
"This time," she said, "I cried."
Mrs. Trimpe was recommended by the Fine Arts Sculpture Centre, Inc. of Clarkston, a bronze foundry. The piece was commissioned through a collaborative effort between Patrick Gleason of the Michigan State Building and Construction Trades Council and by Ironworkers Local 25 from Detroit, Local 340 of Battle Creek, and Local 8 of Milwaukee, Wisconsin.
Mrs. Trimpe has made sculptures for cities and counties.
"When I'm doing this kind of work, I feel closer to God," she said. "You're super charged.
"It's a lot of work, but I love this," she said. "I don't ever plan on quitting. Ever."
In her spare time, Mrs. Trimpe mentors young students in sculpting. Not many art schools in Michigan offer the training, she said.
While the Mackinac Bridge is still the longest two-tower suspension bridge between anchorages in the western hemisphere, 50 years after its construction, it is the third longest suspension bridge worldwide.