I discovered Ralph Fasanella in the pages of Smithsonian magazine sometime in the 1990s. The article talked about a man who worked in a gas station by day, and painted wonderful works of art by night. His paintings were colorful and well composed and they showed working class people in New York neighborhoods, at play in baseball games, protesting for the right to organize in unions. These paintings were accessible and full of the joy and sadness of ordinary workers’ lives. A few years later a coworker gave me a calender of Fasanella pictures. Caught up in the art once again, I bought Paul D’Ambrosio’s book Ralph Fasanella’s America from Amazon.com.
He was one of the great self taught artists of the 20th Century, an artist who dedicated his work to chronicle the history of the workers’ struggles to gain rights in America. Fasanella’s own life gave abundant resources for his work: at various times he was a garment worker, a truck driver, an ice delivery man, a member of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade during the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s, and a union organizer. During the 1950s, he was blacklisted and harassed by the government for his progressive politics. A lifetime in the midst of the workers’ struggles gave his paintings a strong understanding of a particular time in Progressive American history, and it is a particularly apt reminder for these times when unions have been in decline and corporate interests once again rule.
Fasanella began painting during the 1940s. From the very beginning, he took as subject matter the worker’s life and progressive worker’s history. May Day, a huge painting made in 1948, is one of his best early paintings and it depicts a throng of marchers of all races and ethnic backgrounds marching under a banner of “Peace, Democracy, and Security”. At the top center of the painting is a shrine to Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln, Frederick Douglass, and Franklin Roosevelt, and below them, are pictures of early radical heroes like Karl Marx and Sacco and Vanzetti. You can look at the painting at the Gallery Felicie site http://www.galleryfelicie.com/Large.asp?id=10.
For 20 years, from the mid 1950s to the early 1970s, Ralph worked by day at a gas station that he owned and at night he would work at his paintings. The paintings during this time are, in my opinion, his best paintings. My favorite painting of Fasanella’s, Family Supper, was made at this time. Family Supper depicts a working class family having dinner in a city tenement. In the background of the family dinner is a crucifixion painting of the mother and the father, symbolizing for me the sacrifices of these parents for their families. It’s a very joyous and intimate painting for me, and it reminds me of the sacrifices of my own parents, who immigrated from the Philippines to give my siblings and I a better life in America. Take a look at this painting at the Gallery Felicie site http://www.galleryfelicie.com/Large.asp?id=7.
Fasanella continued to make great paintings up to the end of his life in 1997. He also continued to support worker’s unions, taking part in a strike by Portuguese fishermen in 1986 and a strike by the Newspaper Guild in 1990. Ralph Fasanella believed that it was important to honor the history of the working people in America. One of Fasanella’s favorite poems was written by Norman Bethune, a physician and humanitarian. It neatly encapsulates the aspirations of Fasanella’s art.
The function of the artist is to
disturb. His duty is to arouse
the sleepers, to shake the complacent
pillars of the world. He reminds the
world of its dark ancestry, shows the
world its present, and points the way
to its new birth. He is at once the
product and the preceptor of his time.
After his passage we are troubled
and made unsure of our too-easily
accepted realities. He makes uneasy
the static, the set, and the still.
He is an agitator, a disturbor of the
peace- quick, impatient, positive,
restless and disquieting. He is the
creative spirit working in the soul of man.