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SPARKING CREATIVITY WOMEN WELDERS CARRY TORCH IN MALE INDUSTRY.

Byline: Judy O'Rourke Staff Writer

SANTA CLARITA - The casting director did not special-order Marty Coronel for the job but she certainly could have. ``I cast her because she's gorgeous,'' said Danya Berman, casting director for Original Productions, whose shows include ``Monster Garage'' and ``Monster House.''

As a certified welder, Coronel, 35, is qualified to construct bridges and buildings, anything structural. She helped build the Rite Aid Pharmacy on McBean Parkway and Decoro Drive, the fire-escape facade in the Jim Carrey film ``Bruce Almighty'' and the 60-foot-tall TV at Santa Anita Park race track. She sweated the TV gig.

``The structural welds at the bottom were the biggest I-beams I've ever seen,'' Coronel said. ``I had to pass 10 (ultrasonic) inspections in one day. The first time I was so scared, thinking, what if it's not perfect?

``It's like when they look at a baby. They were looking at my baby - my welds.''

She need not have worried. Her welds passed inspection. On the Discovery Channel's ``Monster Garage,'' Jessee James and a crew of mechanics morph cars into tricked-out machines. On ``Monster House,'' builders scramble to turn an everyday house into a fantasy home in five days. Berman said quite a few women welders have appeared on the programs.

``So many industrial trades are male-dominated, it's impossible for women to get in,'' Berman said, noting that some pursuits require a physical strength that women tend not to possess. ``Welding takes precision, skill, accuracy, patience. It's a refined way to work with your hands. It's an amazing fit for women.''

In 1998-99 the president of the American Welding Society was a woman, Shirley Bollinger. The society's spokesman, George Leposky, said no statistics are kept on the number of women in the welding field or on trends, but the outlook appears good.

``Anecdotally, we've seen more and more women taking prominent positions in the welding industry, and the pay is good compared with traditional female occupations,'' said Jeff Hufsey, the organization's deputy executive director.

``Women make very good welders. Their number is growing as we speak.''

Jack Compton, director of College of the Canyons welding program, said 80 percent to 90 percent of the women who enroll in his industrial classes are successful, whereas the men's success rate hovers around 50 percent. Compton serves as district director for the American Welding Society for a territory that spans Arizona, Southern Nevada, Southern California, Mexico and Hawaii.

Hourly wages for a noncertified beginning welder might be just above minimum wage but a certified structural welder can start at $20 to $45.

Skateboarder Shaan Harris, 21, has never met Coronel but is a fan of her work. Coronel built the Santa Clarita Skatepark's grinding rails above its concave bowls.

``Everyone does skate the rails,'' said Harris, who oversees the skate department at Val Surf in Stevenson Ranch and is a member of the company's amateur team. ``It helps you practice to get your tricks down.''

A self-described tomboy who loves to ride motorcycles and quads, Coronel discovered welding about 10 years ago when she returned to school and the state helped defray tuition costs for her ``non-gender-traditional'' course work at College of the Canyons. She works there as a substitute teacher and plans to teach an introductory arc-welding course over the summer.

Compton said his former student could ``hold her own with any of the guys'' working as a structural steel welder. ``I would love for women to know how empowering it is to be so successful in a man's field,'' Coronel said. ``Anything is possible.''

Her trial by fire is filled with wonder. ``I love to burn rod,'' she said. ``It's like when you're watching a candle and fascinated by the fire. I'm truly fascinated by the thing happening in front of me that makes a building, a handrail.'' The Canyon Country resident has never been badly injured, but dingleberries - hot pieces of metal - once burned her hair before she learned to cover it with a cap.

In the past year, Coronel has switched from full-time welding to working as a sales representative in the San Fernando Valley for Praxair, Inc., which manufactures and sells industrial gases. She often draws on her expertise, teaching customers how to use the sophisticated equipment they purchase. Coronel manages to fit a love life into her busy schedule. George Olsey, her boyfriend of about a year, said she is tailor-made for him. ``I don't like sissy girls,'' he said. ``I'm into extreme sports. I'm an avid sky diver, we wakeboard a lot together in the summer and we do motocross together.'' On the flip side, Olsey said his mate is still very much a lady and delights in being treated like one. ``I always open doors for her, I pull back the chair in a restaurant, I'm always a gentleman with her. It's like getting the best of both worlds.''

Jamie Santellano-Shirey's life also bridges two worlds. She has been a hairdresser for 11 1/2 years but metal sculpting captured her imagination two years ago after she began ornamenting glass candleholders.

``I love welding these pieces of metal. There was a part of me that felt scared to use torches with fuel gases and fire. There was a bit of danger that kept coming to mind when you start learning to bend a piece of metal,'' the 30-year-old said. And she felt clumsy when her hammer blows flung sections to the ground.

Compton said the diminutive welder learned to leverage her weight and strength and she caught on to welding and fabricating quickly. Pieces she entered in the 2005 Santa Clarita Artists' Association juried show snagged first- and second-place awards in the People's Choice category.

``Jamie is amazing,'' Coronel said. ``I love her heart. She's like I was when I was learning.''

Santellano-Shirey's pleasure in pounding metal led to a two-month stint working for a blacksmith who makes high-end fireplace screens.

Her daughter, Mia, 10, beams with filial pride. ``I think it's cool that she could do stuff most moms don't want to do,'' Mia said. ``It's dangerous. I think it's amazing, her artwork.''

For Mia's birthday in October, her mom sculpted a smiling Jack Skellington, the wistful character in Tim Burton's ``The Nightmare Before Christmas.''

The artist will fly to Ireland in February for an intense two-week course taught by an award-winning metalsmith at the Bergin Clarke Studio.

Santellano-Shirey has avoided serious injury, but last summer an oxyacetylene torch that flared up in her hand ignited her hair. Protective gear did its job.

``I was scared but not scared enough to quit,'' she said.

Like Coronel, Santellano-Shirey feels compelled to repay the program that nurtured her. She serves as a teacher's aid in Compton's class.

Mary Behlman Foote, 57, has spent most of her career in the clothing business. About three years ago, a friend's presence in the class with ``unfriendly materials and mostly men'' lessened the intimidation factor for her. Today, with a garage full of welding equipment - an MIG welder, plasma cutter, oxyacetylene torch and grinders - Behlman Foote is ready to pursue metal sculpting full time.

She needs plenty of machines to create the cat sculptures, wall hangings and contemporary bar stools outfitted with old tractor seats.

``I'm a little in awe of people who are artistic,'' Coronel said of the new recruit.

With amusement, Behlman Foote shared husband Clifford's new refrain. When she is in the garage and the house lights start to dim, Clifford yells: ``She's got too many machines plugged in!''

Judy O'Rourke, (661) 257-5255

judy.orourke(at)dailynews.com

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3 photos

Photo:

(1 -- 2 -- color) Marty Coronel, above, welded all the rails surrounding the bowls at the Santa Clarita Skatepark. Below, Jamie Santellano-Shirey works on a sculpture of metal flames, using a welding torch to craft artistic creations.

(3 -- color) ``There was a part of me that felt scared to use torches with fuel gases and fire,'' said Jamie Santellano-Shirey.

David Crane/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Jan 14, 2006
Words:1325
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