Shipyard exhibit brings wartime art to life
on September 8, 2015
A new exhibition of rarely seen images by California artist Emmy Lou Packard opened Saturday in Richmond, offering visitors a glimpse of one of the Bay Area’s most noteworthy 20th century artists at work during World War II.
Packard’s work originally appeared in the magazine Fore ‘n’ Aft, distributed to local shipbuilders. Now, it’s mounted for display outside an auditorium at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park on the Richmond waterfront.
Much of the work commemorates the women and immigrants who filled the wartime demand for labor at the Kaiser shipyard. At least 200 people attended Saturday’s art opening.
The event was one of the first times that many of Packard’s images were displayed to the public. Packard, who died in 1998 at the age of 84, grew up in California’s Imperial Valley and moved to Mexico City with her family at age 13. While living in Mexico, she became friends with the legendary muralist Diego Rivera and his artist wife, Frida Kahlo.
Rivera, who was fired after he added a portrait of Lenin to a fresco he was commissioned to paint in New York’s Rockefeller Center in 1933, was just as famous for his incendiary personality as he was for his murals. A bit of the Mexican artist seems to have rubbed off on Packard. She caused a stir on the UC Berkeley campus in the mid-1930s when she famously brought her baby, Donald Cairns, to class with her.
Cairns, now 79, spoke to the crowd Saturday about his mother’s role as a social documentarian during a unique point in California’s history. A retired college professor, Cairns recently moved to Walnut Creek from Pennsylvania to be closer to his daughter, who settled in the area after becoming the fourth generation in the family to graduate from UC Berkeley.
“My mother was a very innovative artist,” Cairns said. “Some people say that she was better at painting Diego Rivera’s murals than Diego himself.”
Packard assisted Rivera with his painting when he visited San Francisco in 1940. She later enjoyed an illustrious career in her own right as a muralist and social activist whose work became well-known all the way from the Mission to Mexico. In 1959, she created an 85-foot-long bas-relief mural cast in concrete for the UC Berkeley campus, where it still hangs on the Cesar Chavez Student Center at Lower Sproul Plaza.
Many of Packard’s prints on display in Richmond feature striking images of the cranes along the city’s waterfront and the workers who built the cargo ships that hauled ammunition across the Pacific.
In 1943, women inspired by images of Rosie the Riveter began working in Richmond’s Kaiser shipyards to meet wartime labor demands. Packard joined them as an engineering drafter. She had been the first female art editor of The Daily Californian while at UC Berkeley, an experience that served her well when she decided to join the staff of the weekly shipyard magazine.
“Having women on the staff of these shipyard publications transformed the world of labor journalism,” said local historian and exhibit curator Lincoln Cushing, who spoke at Saturday’s art opening along with Cairns.
Packard’s dedication to her work left little time for childcare. Cairns spent much of his childhood living with relatives while his mother pursued her art and returned to Mexico.
Packard became a widow before the war and she took every opportunity to pass on her progressive values to her son. Cairns recalled that his mother once found a note that a friend wrote to him describing an experience with a prostitute.
“My mom found it and she went ape,” he said. “She told me that prostitution is degrading to women and urged me never to do that. And I never have.”
Packard produced roughly 100 illustrations that were published in Fore ‘n’ Aft. She primarily worked on scratchboard, a simplistic form of black and white printmaking created by carving into a layer of ink set on cardboard to resemble a linoleum print. This quick form of printmaking allowed Packard to produce art on tight deadline. The pressure of the war left little time for art.
From the moment her name first appeared on the masthead of Fore ‘n’ Aft, Packard tried to document the changing demographics of the shipyards. The war not only catapulted women into the American workforce, it also attracted Latinos who came to live and work in Richmond. As a politically progressive artist with deep roots in Mexico, Packard was uniquely positioned to capture the changing East Bay workforce.
During Saturday’s art opening, Cushing showed the crowd a Packard illustration showing Latino workers referring to their boss as “El Jefe” — Spanish for “The Boss” — in an effort to communicate with Kaiser’s Spanish-speaking workers.
During her time in Richmond, Packard produced many small black and white spot illustrations like the kind one might see in The New Yorker. One of Packard’s scratchboards depicts a white shipyard welder clasping the hand of an African American coworker. Another image included in Saturday’s presentation –done by an unknown shipyard artist working in Portland, Oregon– shows a crowd of female shipyard workers reversing a blue collar cliché, catcalling a lone man.
“Straight white men previously dominated the staff of these shipyard publications,” Cushing said. “You just didn’t see anything like this before the war.”
Despite the trials of the era, Cairns recalls his mother as having a terrific sense of humor.
“I remember visiting her once at her apartment in Richmond and we had a conversation about bedbugs,” Cairns said. “I don’t remember if there were actually bedbugs there or not, but we sure laughed a lot.”
The current exhibit, Emmy Lou Packard: Drawing New Conclusions in the Kaiser Shipyards, will be on display in the lower floor of the Education Center at the Rosie the Riveter WWII Home Front National Historical Park through December. The Education Center is open to the public seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is free.
Clarification: On Sept. 16 this story was changed to make it clear that the exhibit features digital enlargements of work by Emmy Lou Packard, not original prints. Also, an image of female shipyard workers catcalling a man was not produced by Packard in Richmond. Although included in a presentation at the exhibit opening, this image was done by an unknown shipyard artist working in Portland, Oregon. Finally, we have identified Lincoln Cushing, the local historian who spoke at the exhibition opening, as curator of this exhibit.
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