Kate Bergen is a paramedic and artist from New Jersey. When COVID first hit, shift after shift put her directly on the front line of defense against the novel virus ravaging the world. She had “never felt so ill prepared for something” in her 15 year EMS career. Her life-saving work became inconceivably grave and life-risking. Her mental health suffered profoundly. To cope, Kate turned to her art. Having never done a portrait in her 20 years of putting brush to canvas, Kate set out to paint women first responders serving in different critical capacities throughout the pandemic. A powerful portrait series emerged that is as much recognition of these women, as it is morale boosting for them. Kate calls the women her ‘Modern Day Rosies’, and together they are getting the national acclaim they deserve.
Taken as a whole, Kates ‘Modern Day Rosies’ series is a visual time-capsule of what women first responders of COVID have had to endure over the last year and a half just to do their jobs… in the most extraordinary of conditions, and covered in PPE (personal protective equipment). Each poster-like painting tells a story unique to the women featured, all of whom Kate knows directly or through mutual friends and colleagues. They include firefighters, police, nurses, a medical assistant, a respiratory therapist, paramedics, EMTs, an environmental service professional, and… an original WWII era Rosie the Riveter.
Inspired by J. Howard Miller’s iconic “We Can Do It!” World War II women’s work-incentive poster for the Westinghouse Electric & Manufacturing Company (circa 1942), as well as Norman Rockwell’s Rosie the Riveter that ran on the cover of the Saturday Evening Post on Memorial Day, May 29, 1943, Kate chose to paint these heroic women of the COVID era in the likeness of ‘Rosie’, an enduring symbol of working women’s independence and empowerment, strength and resilience.
She envisioned the works to resemble Miller’s posters with a modern twist, and to blend art and history as Rockwell, Kate’s favorite childhood artist, did so well. “I hoped to convey a community-centered PSA-type message – ‘You Can Do It!’ – that spoke to everyone. We press on doing our jobs, and you all do yours by staying home,” the paramedic and artist told WYSK. “In other words, we can do this, if we work together.” In spotlighting some of the many professional roles that have been necessary to get us through the pandemic, Kate also aimed to drive general public awareness of the work these women do, as well as boost morale among the women doing it. “In such difficult times, I wanted to be a source of light for everyone.”
For the impact her series is making, Kate’s ‘Modern Day Rosies’ was recently selected to be a part of the National EMS Museum. It has also earned her national and regional nominations as “Paramedic of the Year” from the National Association of Emergency Medical Technicians and the New Jersey Department of Health – Office of Emergency Medical Services, respectively. Just this week, Kate was nominated nationally for the EMS Caring Award, which is sponsored by EMS World.
As a paramedic who knows firsthand just how unthinkably difficult work and life have been for all COVID first responders, Kate feels a great sense of responsibility in being the visual teller of these women’s stories. “I have seen many things that most people would not be able to handle, as have my colleagues. These paintings are meant to validate their experiences, and document their heroism.”
Ultimately, Kate’s ‘Modern Day Rosies’ are an expression of her gratitude to the heroic women of the pandemic… “women who take action when action is needed.”