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(SUSAN TUSA/Detroit Free Press)

One of Janice Trimpe's students, Yvonne Maes of Grosse Pointe Park, stopped by her studio as Trimpe was making some repairs to a model.

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(SUSAN TUSA/Detroit Free Press)

One of Janice Trimpe's students, Yvonne Maes of Grosse Pointe Park, stopped by her studio as Trimpe was making some repairs to a model.

    Trimpe feels a special connection to this project.

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    (ERIC SEALS/Detroit Free Press)

    A vintage tool belt provided by iron workers helped the sculptor accurately depict what a mid-century worker would wear.

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    (ERIC SEALS/Detroit Free Press)

    Mike Petrucci, owner of the foundry that cast the sculpture, applies a finishing coat to the bronze as Trimpe watches.

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    (SUSAN TUSA/Detroit Free Press)

    Janice Trimpe, who lives and works in Grosse Pointe Park, has become one of Michigan's premier monument sculptors, with many commissions, including a bust of former Wayne County Executive Edward H. McNamara for Metro Airport's new terminal.

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SUSAN AGER

Monumental achievement
Grosse Pointe Park sculptor immortalizes the iron workers who built the Mackinac Bridge

Janice Trimpe has sculpted in bronze the rich, the famous and the powerful.

But her latest work, which will be unveiled Saturday, brings her more satisfaction. Last week, when her life-size statue of an ironworker was installed in a park north of the Mackinac Bridge, she watched tears pool in the eyes of a couple old ironworkers who watched. And she felt good.

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"All this time the bridge has been up, and nobody's honored the iron men," Janice, who is 64, told me by phone after the installation. "Those guys are so special because they're so enthusiastic. They feel they have built monuments, and they're so proud. I can say I've never met a group of men I like better."

Two Detroit-area ironworkers helped Janice design and sculpt an authentic 1950s ironworker, the kind who built the Mackinac Bridge a half-century ago.

Retired iron worker Rick (Squeegee) Whitson of Southgate, who didn't work on Big Mac but knew many men who did, told me he and his friend Mark Morgan met with Janice many times, brought over a vintage tool belt to show her what an old iron worker would have worn and helped her design the statue with just the right tools.

"In his hand he carries an 8-pound sledgehammer, or beater," Squeegee told me of the sculpture. "In his tool belt are spud wrenches, a sleever bar, a 12-inch crescent wrench and a 1-inch bull pin. Over his shoulder he has a rod-busters tool belt, with pliers, a wooden rule and a wire reel.

"We knew if he wasn't accurate the guys would say, 'What fool done that?' So we made sure she put him in Red Wing boots and Carhartt bib overalls. We all tried to make him authentic, and he came out awesome."

A chance regained

He came out awesome because Trimpe (rhymes with primp) has been practicing her craft for 30-some years, even though she got a late start.

Her father said no when Janice wanted to go to college and needed his help. He told her: "You lost your chance."

She lost her chance because, despite her Catholic upbringing, she got pregnant and married at 15 and divorced at 18, escaping her situation by hitchhiking to California with her baby son.

She would marry again at 21, back in Detroit, to a man who drank too much, and have two more children. Not until she was 30 years old, encouraged by a pottery teacher, did she finally enter the Center for Creative Studies in Detroit, paying her own way and winning scholarships.

Janice divorced her second husband soon after, finally provoked when he punched and smashed a clay bust she was working on, the head of a weathered sailor she knew. She raised her children mostly alone with money she made tailoring clothes, styling hair, cleaning houses and, eventually, sculpting hundreds of heads of people who passed her early studio on Shelby in downtown Detroit.

Her big break came in 1989 when she was commissioned to sculpt a bronze of former Mayor Orville Hubbard, waving as if from a parade, for the lawn of the Dearborn City Hall. She has since created nine other monuments, including a six-person scene commemorating the 1936-37 Sitdown Strike for UAW headquarters in Flint.

Janice works from a large studio on a quiet street in Grosse Pointe Park, a couple blocks from the home she shares with Roger Wayne, a Compuware trainer she married four years ago.

She has become one of Michigan's premier monument sculptors, doing many private and public commissions. In 2002 it was Janice's bust of former Wayne County Executive Edward H. McNamara that was installed in Metro Airport's new terminal, near its big, popular fountain.

She was asked in January to sculpt the iron worker by her old friend Mike Petrucci, owner of Fine Arts Sculpture Centre, a foundry just east of Clarkston that has cast her work for many years. Mike had been approached by Iron Workers Local 25, one of three locals who built the Mackinac Bridge, to create a monument honoring those men.

Mike says he picked Janice because he admires her work and ability to turn projects quickly. Plus, he says, "She's been on her own for a long time. She struggled for a lot of years."

The iron workers' union paid $62,000 for the monument. Both Janice and foundry owner Mike, who usually split a fee, say they earned less on this project than they typically would, but aimed to keep it in the union's budget.

No one and everyone

To create the statue, Janice used a familiar 6-foot-3 male model, dressing him in the clothes and shoes the iron workers suggested. She crafted his face, though, from her imagination.

"They worked real hard," she told me, "so they had lean strong bodies, and they were rugged. Men who are rugged have wide jaws and have furrows on their foreheads from the sun, and if they drink a lot, they have little sacks under their eyes from the water they retain.

"And these guys drank a lot, from what I've heard."

In the park on the UP side of the Straits of Mackinac, the iron man stands with his back to the bridge, balancing on an iron beam. Mounted to a chunk of granite beneath him is a bronze plaque that names five men -- three of them iron workers-- who died in the massive project.

The monument will be covered by canvas until Saturday, when it is unveiled and dedicated during a two-day celebration of the bridge's half-century mark. (See http://www.mackinacbridge.org/ for details.)

I asked Squeegee about Janice Trimpe's iron man. He's retired from that hard work, having helped build Detroit's RenCen and Joe Louis arena. His best friends are iron workers.

I wondered: "Does the man in the statue look like anybody you know?"

Squeegee chuckled. "He looks like everybody I ever knew."

Contact SUSAN AGER at 313-222-6862 or sager@freepress.com.

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