Editor’s note: Kate Bergen is a paramedic from New Jersey and an artist. She has been chronicling 2020 via art in a Rosie the Riveter-inspired series called “Modern Day Rosies.” JEMS chatted with Kate to learn more.
JEMS: What inspired you to create this artwork that you call “Modern Day Rosies?”
Kate: This series was created sort of accidentally. Being a paramedic we are used to certain stressors of our job, however this pandemic has changed the way that I and many others process stress. I found myself struggling with depression and fear. I was terrified of bringing this home to my family. It felt like every day I was getting up and getting dressed for a war I felt ill prepared for. Sure we have training for things like mass casualty incidents and how to deal with infectious agents but the difference here for me personally is that it felt like there was no end in sight. So in a way to cope with this mounting stress I turned to painting.
I have been painting for many years, but this is the first time I really started painting people. The series started with a painting inspired by a picture I took in my respirator. I thought to myself the public really has no idea what it’s like to be on this side of the pandemic and I wanted to create a PSA poster of sorts to share that we can do our job in taking care of everyone if they do theirs and stay home so we can flatten the curve. This was back in March when it all started to take off and I just found myself feeling helpless despite doing a job that I am actually helping others. This was a way for me to use my voice through art. This was created in a Rosie the Riveter meets Uncle Sam with a modern twist. That is how the series became titled Modern Day Rosies. All of my subjects are women on the frontlines and women I know personally or through someone else.
My first painting was popular in our EMS community, I decided to go a step further and do another painting this time of an Asian ER nurse named Le. I have known Le for a few years, I know her well enough to know she is a single mom, a very good nurse and very compassionate with her patients. When she told that she was experiencing discrimination over the pandemic being called a Chinese Virus my heart went out to her. I wanted to do a painting of her because it shows that despite others’ prejudices, despite race religion or creed – we are all in this together. This created a response I wasn’t originally prepared for, there was so much love and compassion coming from others not over the piece but for Le herself. I decided then I wanted to use my voice to celebrate other women on the front lines regardless of their professions.
This pandemic is hard work by itself, and yet still so much is taken for granted. There are so many out there putting themselves at risk for the greater good of their communities and I really felt that that should be celebrated. I went into my own community and found women from many professions. To date I have completed 18 paintings with another 30 women yet to paint. Even one painting of therapy dogs that have been at the hospital everyday with their handler, the head of our security department, because he felt so strongly that we (patients and staff) needed the distraction of fluffy wiggly butts to help ease some of the stresses.
JEMS: What were you looking to accomplish when you started this project?
Kate: When I first started this project I was looking for my own personal outlet. This series has turned into a way to say thank to women of many professions. It celebrates not only the women I painted, it allows their loved ones to share in their pride. These paintings have resonated with others across the country that are also in these professions, or who have loved ones in these professions. So what started as a PSA, continues but now has the added benefit of boosted morale. I love seeing the responses of the friends and family of the women I paint.
They are just so proud of their people. It means more to me that these paintings actually mean something to others than any profit could provide. It makes me proud that I could create that for them.
JEMS: What has been the reaction so far?
Kate: There has been a very positive reaction, overall. The women I paint feel honored to be a part of a series that recognizes them for their hard work, their people are proud to see that recognition for them. We have sold prints of these canvases all over the country with constant interest in upcoming new releases and ordering custom paintings.
JEMS: Do you see yourself as a Rosie?
Kate: In some ways yes. When this pandemic began, I felt a need to do something to help but I wasn’t sure what. (Aside from my actual job). The Rosie the Riveter movement was a call to action for many women in this country, it was very much a we can do this together. I feel that same kind of unity now, not only as a medic but also as a citizen. I couldn’t be prouder to know that I am creating something that is bringing that same pride to others.
JEMS: Tell me about how you went about drawing them.
Kate: The actual process was tedious at first as I wasn’t sure of the exact design. It’s now streamlined a bit. I take pictures or ask for a specific picture from my subjects. I have the background (iconic Rosie- blue and yellow) and general set up the same for each one. I pick the pose that I think looks best and draw the outline of the person on my canvas. From there I do an underpainting to get the foundation set up and provide depth to the painting, I work in details until I bring up a likeness to each woman that is recognizable from their mask up. I’ve been told many times that these women feel unrecognizable under all that PPE, but that I was able to truly capture their eyes and visible facial features. That is such a complement and always something I strive for! I want my women to say hey! that’s me! or for their friends and family to see the painting and think to themselves that looks like so-and-so only to realize it actually is!
I take their input and put something in each of them that is unique to them, either a scrub cap or a stethoscope or for one painting I actually put hidden Mickeys in. The nurse midwife painting I painted my son as a newborn in her arms because she was not able to be there to deliver him and we both regretted that. Things like that just makes it a little more special for each of them. Before I release a painting, I sit and think about not only the specifics of their profession but also their role within this pandemic as well as their personal traits. It becomes a specialized piece that really sings them accolades and something that I hope adds to how special these pieces and project are.
JEMS: Tell me about your time as a paramedic. What do you like about it?
Kate: I have been in EMS for 15 years, the last 9 of which I have been a paramedic. I love what I do, I have recently started to get into critical care medicine and I find that fascinating. I am touching people’s lives just by being there, even if it is literally comforting someone and holding their hand as we provide care. What may seem routine or mundane for us can be someone else’s worst day, and I try to keep that in mind on every patient encounter. It is my job to go in, assess, start appropriate interventions and take control of the situation. Sometimes that control means just providing comfort and reassurance. It is my job to guide the process so that it goes as smoothly as possible and the patient or their families have as much information as I can provide them as we do that.
I live by the motto, this line of work requires compassion, if you don’t have it, you don’t belong here. Burnout and compassion fatigue is very real in our profession; it’s something that requires constant assessment and revisiting. Mental health improvement is paramount for our field. I am currently working on a painting for this series that addresses the PTSD that we as clinicians are exposed to, especially due to the personal aspects that I began to experience during the pandemic. If it weren’t for my painting as an outlet I’m not sure how well I would have gotten through. It will be a very personal perhaps abstract piece as mental health itself is multifaceted and abstract. I am looking forward to creating it and using my voice to help anyone else who is out there struggling.
JEMS: Anything else you want to add?
Kate: I refer to myself artist by birth, paramedic by trade. I have an almost equal love for art and medicine and if you think about they are intimately intertwined, there is so much art and beauty in nature and the human body that they (art and medicine) just work so perfectly together!
I am a self-taught artist, I picked up a book I call an advanced paint by numbers. It was one day that said- paint this color with this brush using this technique here. I started painting people for the first time during the pandemic and I am amazed at how quickly the series (and my own abilities!) are advancing!