Pile Driving Comes to Life Through Art

Union members collaborate with artist to create new exhibit.

By JJ Maldonado

The San Pedro exhibit “Supporting Structures: A Community Arts Project” displays the work of past and current generations of pile drivers. It’s a dedication to people who work in the most dangerous of jobs and who place their lives on the line to make our lives easier.

The Los Angeles based artist, Fausto Fernandez, and the Southwest Regional Council of Carpenters, the Pile Drivers, Bridge, Dock and Wharf Builders Local Union 2375 together collaborated to create the new installation at the Angels Gate Cultural Center.

“It was a group effort, a mixture of us having to visit the yards together,” Fernandez said. “A lot of [drivers] brought more of the things they felt were important for them to have on display.”

Rusted and weathered remnants create the current exhibit showing now through Feb. 2015. The installation is made of artifacts on loan from pile drivers of Local 2375. An orange copper-toned vintage diver’s helmet and gear make up the right corner of the gallery. The wall directly behind it is made-up of cracked and distressed helmets of retired drivers. One helmet, metallic and covered with two union stickers, dates back 42 years. Adjacent are black and white transferred-image paintings, such as one titled “Diver 1930.” The paintings are splashed with yellow paint that drips down the piece.

One of the pieces Fernandez said is special to him is the tabletop in the middle of the room. “I think it’s a real significant piece because it looks like a bridge but serves as a table and it’s part of the community so people can use it,” he said.

Underneath the tabletop are items such as a ship’s wheel, chains, an old shirt, and treasure chest as well as many other sea items.

“I think when you come in and see the exhibit and sit with it, you look at the tools or the hard hats that have been through some really tough times. You can see some of them are a little broken and some of them are really dirty,” Isabelle Lutterodt, the director of visual arts for the center, said. “You begin to connect with them from a heartfelt place and that is my hope when you come through.”

The work of a pile driver has probably affected many of us, especially commuters. Long poles, called piles, are sunk into the soil laying out the foundation for building freeways, bridges, wharves, docks, skyscrapers and parking lots -- most of the modern structures around us.

“They build the foundation that we then grow from,” Lutterodt said. “It’s the basis for our modern civilization.”

The idea of the project began in Sept. 2013 and took six months of research and labor to come to life. Months of planning took place with Lutterodt and Fernandez at the Union’s Hall and with a sub committee who would then communicate the ideas back to the union. Lutterodt said she would meet with the union every two weeks. She chose to work with a union to create dialogue with a community that is highly present in San Pedro, a neighborhood of Los Angeles with a strong identity as a port city.

“There’s been many books written about the history of San Pedro, but there’s not much that has been said about the pile drivers,” Fernandez said.

The exhibit is an installation that both Lutterodt and Union Business Manager John Schafer agree is a way to create a response for communication for understanding.

“We make something of value and we contribute to it,” Schafer said. “We build the docks, piers and bridges that thousands of union members work on every day.”

The union specifically represents more than 800 members who mostly live in the San Pedro, Wilmington and Long Beach areas. Members consist of apprentices, welders and divers.

Pictured from the '50s with full scuba gear and a thick rope attached to her safety belt is Norma Hanson. Hanson is featured in one of the informational pamphlets set out for visitors. According to the pamphlet she was the first female 2375 union diver. Her and her husband, Al Hanson, both worked as pile drivers.

Many of these members come from a long lineage of union members. Shafer is a third generation pile driver. His grandfather was a diver who helped build the sewage system in LA County. His father helped build the breakwaters, (which reduce the intensity of waves) in Catalina and Long Beach and his brother worked on the oil platforms in Santa Barbara.

“Many of my members have opened themselves up for understanding and at worst judgment,” Schafer said. “I’m very pleased with what they done and I hope that other opportunities for either ourselves or for other unions are developed in the future.”

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