‘Modern Day Rosies’: How one paramedic channeled her pandemic emotions into a tribute to female essential workers
Kate Bergen taught herself to paint nearly 20 years ago, but it was the pandemic that turned her into an artist
Like many, during the early days of COVID-19, Kate Bergen was looking to channel her existential anxiety into something productive. The paramedic and mother of two didn’t turn to puzzles, sourdough bread-making or extreme house organization, though. Instead, Bergen picked up a paintbrush and created an entire movement dedicated to honoring female essential workers, with a nod to the Rosie Riveters of World War II – even receiving a blessing for the project from an original Rosie.
“I wanted to do something, to show something”
Shortly after the U.S. entered into a pandemic lockdown in March 2020, Bergen was confronted by an ugly byproduct of the crisis she wasn’t prepared to deal with: racism.
She was shocked to hear that Le Li, an ER nurse at AtlantiCare Regional Medical Center where they both worked, was being harassed for her race in light of COVID-19’s discovery in Wuhan, China.
“I was so taken aback when I heard that because she’s an amazing person and an awesome nurse,” Bergen said of her friend, who had become a single mother to three girls after the tragic death of her husband a few years ago.
“She’s dealing with that on top of this,” Bergen said. “I wanted to do something, to show something. Kind of like using my voice, as little as it was, to say, ‘keep your prejudices at home, because people that you think are bringing the stress are actually on the front lines helping.’”
Bergen channeled the vulnerability she felt on a daily basis, and the emotions she experienced on behalf of her coworker, into her first “Modern Day Rosie” portrait featuring Li.
“It was that community spirit that I wanted to foster”
Li's portrait is the first in Bergen's series of another person. Initially, she painted a paramedic who she said was a self-portrait from the mask down.
“I was kind of doing this little Rosie the Riveter meets Uncle Sam,” she said, as in, “‘We need you to stay home,’ and I’m pointing a finger at people.”
The idea was born.
After Li, Bergen began searching in her community for other frontline workers she could showcase during the pandemic, including professions she had never considered to be crucial.
“There’s so much I didn’t understand about essential personnel,” she said. “Mail carriers, grocery store workers, truck drivers that deliver stuff; as far as being essential, I just took it for granted, like everybody else.”
Through her series, Bergen hoped to elevate the importance of appreciating the workers on the front lines whose jobs help more people stay home and stop the spread, particularly women.
“There is just something special with giving a shoutout to these women, following in the Rosie Riveter view,” she said. “It really felt like a call to action. We came together as a community to do the best we could to fight this, to flatten the curve, as they were saying. It was that community spirit that I wanted to foster.”
Bergen’s series title is more than just a nod to the women of World War II – it was inspired by them and their dedication to beat a temporary crisis through hard work and by fostering a team spirit.
And, of course, it was inspired by the iconic Rosie the Riveter image and can-do spirit.
“Rosies were kind of a call to arms during World War II,” Bergen said. COVID-19 “felt like a similar call to arms, a community getting up, getting together and working to beat this. I just felt that ‘We can do it!’ mantra radiating in my head.”
Bergen acknowledges that she feels a kindred spirit with the Rosies.
“That is something that I would have done back in the 40s,” she said. “That is just the person I am. I’m not one to sit back and do nothing. That is part of how I became a paramedic, because that’s just my nature.”
And it’s the nature of her subjects as well.
“They are so proud” of the portraits, Bergen shared, choking back tears. “They are the Rosies. They are super proud to be a part of it.”
Searching for an outlet
Even before the pandemic started, Bergen had been turning to her paintbrushes in daily life as part of a woodworking business she owned with her husband, who is also a paramedic and a nurse.
“I have to credit my husband for me being an artist now, he’s always been artsy,” she said. “We created this business where he would do woodworking stuff and I would paint it, so through that, I started painting more.”
Bergen taught herself how to paint when she was 18 – nearly 20 years ago – and it had always been a hobby. However, once COVID-19 emerged, it became a passion.
“If I wasn’t sleeping, if I wasn’t at work, if my kids didn’t need something immediately, I was painting,” she said.
While having an outlet to come home to at the end of a shift was certainly a positive, finding a way to channel that stress relief to elevate others at the same time is what brought Bergen true joy.
“It was the fact that it resonated with people,” she said. “Then it felt like it had a purpose. I wasn’t just painting pretty things so that people would notice. It had meaning, not only to the people I was painting, but to the people that were seeing it – their people, the ones that love and support them.”
Gaining the support and appreciation of a community
As Bergen finished more portraits in her Modern Day Rosies series, she was inundated with requests for different careers and suggestions for people to paint; she still has more than 20 left to add and even more that she had to turn down due to time restraints.
“People ask, ‘Do you have this career? Do you have that one?’” she said. “Sometimes my answer is, ‘I didn’t know that was a career.’”
She calls the interest in her paintings “surreal.”
“I never saw this coming,” she said. “Not from childhood. Not from starting the business. Not from starting the series. At no point did this thought pop into my head.”
“But,” she laughed, “I’m not complaining!”
Bergen was approached by a local art gallery to do a series showcase of her portraits in September 2020.
“It was amazing,” she said. “There were so many people that were there just to support me, people I didn’t even know. It was awesome that my community came together to show support; it was just really special. It will definitely be something that I will never forget.”
An original Rosie gets her own painting
Mae Krier was just 17 years old when she began working at a Seattle Boeing factory, where she helped make B-17 and B-29 planes for the war effort overseas.
Now in her mid-90s, Krier has never abandoned that same spirit of community. When the pandemic spread across the U.S., she took to her sewing machine and began making facemasks in the iconic red-and-white polka dot pattern as seen on the headband of Rosie the Riveter.
During the summer, Bergen reached out to Krier to make her aware of her tribute to the Rosie icon, as well as to inquire about possibly painting her.
“Up until this point, I had only painted people that I knew,” she said. “Initially, she was skeptical because she didn’t know who I was.”
Krier had experienced people wanting to use aspects of the Rosie image for personal gain, which made her understandably distrustful.
“I told her, ‘Ma’am, I am so sorry that happened to you, but I promise, that is not my goal,’” Bergen said. “’I just want to make this tribute to you and to other amazing women out there.’”
Once Krier found out Bergen was a first responder, she was good to go.
“When I told her I was a paramedic, she said, ‘Oh, you should have just said that to begin with,’” Bergen laughed. “I didn’t know that had bearing, but OK.”
The duo’s mutual concern for their community and the women on the front lines, despite decades separating the two historical moments, is evident.
“It was like connecting with a piece of history, a real, verifiable piece of history that I can touch, talk to and hear all of her stories,” Bergen said.
Honoring the first responders of 9/11
Thanks to the support, encouragement and enthusiasm for her Modern Day Rosies series, Bergen has started on a second collection honoring the women who served on the front lines during the Sept. 11 terrorist attack who are still serving on the front lines of COVID-19.
In the first installment of her “Heroes Helping Heroes” series, Bergen depicts eight women with the lights of the One World Trade Center in the background, an American flag draped beneath and a reminder: “We need you to never forget.”
The series holds a special place in Bergen’s heart, as this year will be the 20th anniversary of the attacks.
“If I had my pipe dream, this series would end up in a museum somewhere because I just feel like it really captures history,” she said. “It really captures the essence of what we’re going through as people, and I hope one day someone will see that.”
“I’m going to keep trying so that maybe they will.”