The women welders of Orcas

For four days every year, a group of women, covered in protective gear from head to toe, gather to manipulate metal beneath a hot summer sky.

The Women’s Welding Weekend is a time for exploration, self-sufficiency and community.

From a 10-foot tall steel sun suspended from fir tree branches to a detailed deck railing, the results are as unique and varied as the retreat’s participants.

“It’s an extremely competent group of women,” said Maria Root, who co-founded WWW in 2011 with Anne Ganley and Kristi Silver. “It is probably a safe claim to say we are the only group of our kind in the world.”

Root, now a retired psychologist, has been a potter for 50 years. In 2008, she delved into the art of welding.

“I wanted company so I started collecting people to join me!” Root said. “Initially, I thought it would be that one weekend. It was just one welder, under an umbrella. But then began to be a yearly gathering.”

A second assembly of welders met in 2015. Typically, the two weekends have happened back to back, but this year all the artists met for a joined gathering to celebrate the 10th anniversary.

Root has hosted every year since then, providing space on her White Beach area property and housing the tools. Ganley organizes meal and cooking responsibilities.

The women use Lincoln electric metal inert gas welders. They separate out the welding section and work at stations in the grinding and saw area.

There is always a designated safety officer to decrease the risk of injury — there have been no accidents to date. Participants follow a daily schedule written on a whiteboard, and at the end of each day, the women show one another the progress on their projects. They also present party favors to one another at the start of the weekend.

The artists range in age from 50s to late 70s, and they are a mix of full- and part-time Orcas residents (with a handful from the White Beach neighborhood). Other members are Kate Marek, Lynda Ransley, Terri Goodwin and Sue Tuttle. They are all self-taught.

“People have been invited very carefully and both groups are closed,” said Root, who added that Tessa Vollrath, a University of Washington architect student, participated as an intern for the first time this year.

Ransley, who works remotely for the King County government, joined the second group in 2015. She creates pieces of epic proportions. Behemoth flowers and kelp sculptures live in the woods on her property.

“Everyone has had other lives,” Ransley said. “The welding is for fun and personal exploration. It’s not a commercial venture.”

They acquire steel on the mainland and go “dumpster diving” at an architectural fabrication business a few weeks before the gathering. Root oversees the purchase of all other supplies and members split the costs.

“Maria has acquired more power tools than anyone I know,” Ransley laughed. “I grew up using power tools with my dad, and it’s very empowering to use the tools and to problem-solve issues with the welders. You are stepping into the void once you use the welder.”

The women’s projects range from tables and gabions to art trellises and hanging sculptures. Edmonds Community College reached out to the welders a few years ago, asking for an in-person consultation.

“I approach life differently now. The welding stimulated my creativity in a new way,” said Ransley, who is a painter and woodworker with art represented in three galleries.

Five of the groups’ members have artwork on display in the Creative Minds Gallery in Eastsound, and Ransley and Root were both featured in the recent Orcas Studio Tour. The welders say that while their artistic growth has been incredible, it’s been equally rewarding to discover practical applications for their knowledge.

When a new stove was delivered to Root’s home and it didn’t come with a receptacle box to transition from stove to venting, she fired up the welder and did a quick custom fabrication.

“We never think ‘I can’t do that.’ It’s ‘how do we do that,’” Ransley said. “It’s a robustly talented group of people.”

Colleen Smith/staff photo
A large flower made by Lynda Ransely.

Colleen Smith/staff photo A large flower made by Lynda Ransely.

Colleen Smith/staff photo
Sea kelp sculpture by Maria Root.

Colleen Smith/staff photo Sea kelp sculpture by Maria Root.

Colleen Smith/staff photo
A table made by Lynda Ransley.

Colleen Smith/staff photo A table made by Lynda Ransley.

Colleen Smith/staff photo
A sculpture by Maria Root.

Colleen Smith/staff photo A sculpture by Maria Root.