Red Alexander, Shipwright and Folk Artist
By Maria Hetherton
Maria Hetherton holds a doctorate in folklore from Indiana University, Bloomington, and has taught in Bay Area middle and high schools for fifteen years. As a folklorist, she has interests that include oral narrative, life history, and occupational culture and lore. In addition to documenting oral histories of union members, she has also developed a curriculum for local unions and for the California Arts Council where she explored the musical traditions of East Bay Cajun and Mexican-American performers.
This is one of two study guides that are intended for use by middle- and high-school students and can be integrated into social studies and language arts curriculums. As introductions to aspects of labor culture in the San Francisco Bay Area, they foreground two documentary films:
Chris Simon's Red Alexander, Shipwright and Folk Artist (1998), which focuses on the life and craft of a retired shipwright whose exquisite models of working ships mirror his fifty-year career building ships on the Oakland Estuary.
Maria Brooks's Pilebutts, Working Under the Hammer (2003), which celebrates the camaraderie and tough, risk-laden work of men and women of Oakland's Pile Drivers Local Union Number 34, who drive the pilings for structures like bridges, docks, freeways and skyscrapers.
Although the Red Alexander film focuses on an individual, and the Pilebutts film on an occupational community, the films are linked in several ways. Bay Area shipwrights and pile drivers in fact belong to the same Northern California Regional Carpenters Union. And in the heyday of Bay Area ship production, they worked side-by-side; every ship was launched from timber ways constructed by pile drivers. Occasionally pile drivers would stay on the job, shifting tool and trade to that of a shipwright.
Using these films will enrich your social studies or language arts curriculum in several ways. Both convey a sense of labor history and occupational culture that is local and alive. The occupational handiwork of shipwrights and pile drivers features abundantly in our local landscape, and extension activities invite students to reach beyond classroom walls to engage hands-on with the products of shipwright and pile driver labor. Finally, in a society that tends to devalue blue-collar labor, the subjects of these films invite students to appreciate the professionalism, acumen, artistry, courage, and pride of workers in the skilled carpentry trades.
This learning packet includes the following resources:
Teachers and students in other cities and regions can use the activities and projects in San Francisco as models for things they can do wherever they happen to live.
As a worker, Red's shipyard labor undergirds a vital aspect of bay area growth and economy, past and present. As a folk artist, Red's skill-in-trade and artistic product cohere seamlessly. He could not wait to return to work each day, because he was "creating something." And at break-time and at home, he designed and built the model ships he'd created since boyhood. Even his wife's engagement ring was presented embedded in a model ship! As a blue-collar preservationist, Red has worked on the restoration of historical working ships berthed at San Francisco's Hyde Street Pier and has created monuments-in-miniature to the working vessels-freighters, barges, tugs, scows-once so vital to bay area commerce.
Notable is Red's sense of tradition. He speculates how early humans built the first boat. He points out that model making always preceded the blueprint stage of ship design.
Implicit in Red's sense of occupational pride is the complexity of ship construction. Land structures are built on right angles, perpendicular to the earth. With a leveling device carpenters readily construct clean, straight lines. But ships have 'flair', the up-and-outward curve of its sides; 'sheer', the convex curve of the main deck's length; and 'camber', the convex curve of the main deck's width. Moreover, ships were built on launching ways, shored up with timbers and tilted toward the water in declivity to facilitate the eventual launch. Once launched, construction continued on an undulating, floating work surface. Shipwrights like Red take exceptional pride in meeting these challenges and, truly, their abilities are sophisticated and unique. Although the construction of wooden ships became passé after World War II, Red moves past nostalgia to celebrate pragmatic innovations like a heavy-duty steel barge designed for breaking up Alaskan ice floes.
Red reminisces fondly of the crews he worked with as a shipwright and, later in his career, dock master. In a spirit of cooperation, men pitched in according to individual expertise, often extending their labor a bit past the shift's end out of pure engagement in the task. To fellow shipwright and labor folklorist Archie Green, Red displays the buttons—years' worth of them—that shipwrights wore on their caps to show they'd paid their union dues. Red Alexander embodies the blue-collar worker whose expertise, skill and sense of tradition elevate his craft to an art and dignify his labors.
Discussion Questions: Red Alexander, Shipwright and Folk Artist
For how many years has Red worked in shipbuilding? For how many years has he made model ships?
What was going on for Red as a student in school? What event at school led him to discover the Oakland waterfront and a shipwright's livelihood?
As a shipwright, what kinds of jobs did Red need to do? How did work crews combine talents and cooperate to get jobs done?
Red enjoyed his work very much. Why did he not mind the times he and others in his work crew kept working after shift's end?
How does Red use his models to teach about working sea vessels and ship construction? What is a floating dry dock? What was the barge he calls "the ram" designed to do? What types of ships did you notice in Red's collection?
How has the Oakland Estuary changed since Red's shipyard days? What factors led to the end of wooden ship production?
Why would a shipwright like Red Alexander wear union buttons on the cap he wore to work?
How was ethnicity a factor in the shipyards of Oakland and San Francisco?
You could describe Red's artistry as "seamless." Explain how shipbuilding and modeling fit into Red's work, leisure and personal life.
Classroom Applications and Student Projects
• Take a field trip to SF's Hyde Street pier. Sketch a variety of working vessels and describe their function. Assume the identity of several persons who worked on either the Balclutha or the C. A. Thayer, and describe a day of work. For more in-depth writing, assume the identity of one worker and create a written log based on a single voyage. This could also be a group project with several students contributing to a journal based on what they learned as a group on their field trip to the Hyde Street Pier.
• Visit the site at China Camp in Marin County where ship builders are recreating a Chinese shrimp junk. Document what you learn with photos or sketches or a model.
• Make a model ship without using a kit.
• Interview a worker in the maritime trades: dock workers, ship pilots, longshoremen. Find out what their jobs entail, what makes their work challenging and what makes them proud of their work Ask for specific stories and examples. Write a transcription of your conversation, and some comments at the end about what you learned from the interview.
• Find out about some vessels that are crucial to Bay Area economy (container ships, oil tankers, tug boats, fishing boats, ferries). What about their size and design makes them more functional for their purpose? What kinds of workers would be responsible for their construction? Where were they constructed? Create an illustrated scrapbook that includes your illustrations or photos along with the information you have gained.
• Observe the containers ships docked near Jack London Square. How does the cargo loading/unloading process work? Sketch what you see. Find out about the kind of machinery involved, and do some research to find out about dock work.
• Study the insignia of Industrial Carpenters Local Union 2236, the union to which Red Alexander belongs. Sketch the emblem. What images does the insignia contain? How do they represent the carpentry trade? What words are in the insignia? What do they—especially the Latin motto—mean?
• Interview someone who belongs to any sort of trade union. at are their obligations to the union, and what does the union do for them?
The following websites might be of use:
• The San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park website, which includes information about the historical working vessels at Hyde Street Pier and the Maritime Museum:
Websites on the History and Culture of Organized Labor:
Green, Archie. 1993. Wobblies, Pile Butts, and Other Heroes: Laborlore Explorations. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
------. 2001. Torching the Fink Books & Other Essays on Vernacular Culture. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
------. 2002. Tin Men. Urbana: University of Illinois Press.
Munoz, Michael S. 1986. "Pilebutt": Stories and Photographs about Pile Driving. San Leandro, Calif.: Pilebutt Press.
Robinson, John V. 2004. Spanning the Strait: Building the Alfred Zampa Memorial Bridge. Crockett, Calif.: Carquinez Press.
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