Forging steel, bonds

An unlikely team at Sparrows Point demonstrates the art of collaboration


They put up with long hours, endless demands from an exacting boss and teasing from their jealous co-workers, who nicknamed them "geisha boys." Then, when it was all finally coming to end, the four men assigned to work for Setsuko Ono did something that presumably few if any, ironworkers had ever done inside the pallid, steel walls of the machine shop at Sparrows Point.

They ate sushi.

A more unlikely group has rarely ever assembled for a lunch of raw fish. The boss is a retired World Bank executive turned author and sculptor, the youngest child of an aristocratic Japanese family that produced prominent bankers and artists, the most famous being her sister, Yoko, whose marriage to John Lennon placed her in the sorority of female pop-culture icons.

By contrast, the ironworkers come from a world of hard hats and steel-toed shoes, where sons follow their grandfathers and fathers into the belly of the mill. But for one scorching summer, the hardened ironworkers and the former development banker found common ground as they worked 10- and 12-hour days shaping steel into works of art that will be on display at the Inner Harbor starting today.

"All these guys have an enthusiasm that I could not imagine," Ono, 64, said during an interview at her Washington home. "They are working on just technical matters usually at the mill, but they take time to develop their creative ability."

The Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts selected Ono to create six sculptures, which will become part of an annual, revolving exhibit at McKeldin Square, near the corner of Pratt and Light streets. The finished works will be funded with $150,000 raised from private sponsors.

Netherlands-based Mittal Steel, which acquired the former Bethlehem Steel mill in April, donated the steel and dedicated four ironworkers to help Ono cut and weld the sculptures based on her drawings and impromptu instructions.

Ono's studio was the mill's light fabrication shop, a remote, colorless shed that is slated to be partially torn down later this year as part of Mittal's efforts to cut costs. What it lacked in glamour, it made up for in functionality with its cutting sheers, plasma arc, bending rolls and other tools used for taming steel.

The days often began before dawn, when Ono would pull up to the shop in her red Mercedes SLK 230, which workers say she routinely covered for protection from the omnipresent dust and grime that colors the air over Sparrows Point.

Though petite when compared with her crew of ironworkers, friends and former co-workers say Ono is one of those rare people who can command a room with a combination of assertiveness and humility. Both qualities served her well for years at the World Bank, where she made an art of cajoling wealthier nations into funding projects for Third World countries.

"Her cooperation with the steel mill is an example of her talent for convincing people they should work with her," said Xavier de la Renaudiere, who worked with Ono at the World Bank and is now a consultant in Washington. "It's the same talent she used at the World Bank, where she was very good at gaining the confidence of ministers in developing countries."

Always conscious of her October deadline, Ono drove the workers hard in the un-air conditioned shop, which became oppressive in the summer heat. The workers began to jokingly refer to her as "the general." But to Gordon Jakubowski, a welder and 26-year veteran of Sparrows Point, she was more like a hummingbird whose wings move so fast you can't see them.

"She's always got the energy to just go, go, go," he said. "We're used to working and accomplishing a couple of things at a time, and working with her is like always working on 12 different things at a time."

That's been a theme throughout Ono's life, friends say. She has always immersed herself into her passions, working long hours for the World Bank and then retreating at night to a studio at the Corcoran College of Art, where she has taken classes off and on for more than 20 years.

"I've never known anyone who can do so many different things at one time," said Kay Janiszewski, a Pasadena resident who has known Ono since the late 1950s.

Janiszewski and former Harford County Councilwoman Barbara Risacher went to high school with Ono at a cloistered private girls school in Tokyo that drew the daughters of diplomats, U.S. military officers and prominent Japanese. Their fathers were both officers at the former Johnson Air Force Base in Tokyo.

After marveling at Ono's sculptures, Risacher introduced her to Rebecca Hoffberger, director of the American Visionary Art Museum in Baltimore. Hoffberger later recommended Ono for the McKeldin Square project, and Janiszewski, a longtime employee at Sparrows Point, suggested that the steel mill get involved.

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