Sunday, March 29, 2009

Who's Almost Who In Knickerbocker Village History: Ralph Fasanella

As I got absorbed in The Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire Memorial series I remembered the work of Sullivan Street born Ralph Fasanella and his great working people and labor themed pieces.
image source gallery felicie
audio bread and roses from labor notes
more on bread and roses and the lyrics from pseudo-intellectualism in April of 2008
below: from the daily news series' BIG TOWN BIOGRAPHY: Lives and Times of the Century's Classic New Yorker
RALPH FASANELLA NOT FOR SOME RICH GUY’S LIVING ROOM By TOM ROBBINS Daily News Staff Writer Sunday, November 14th 1999, 2:11AM
IT STARTED with a pain in his fingers, a restless, bothersome throbbing. For the longest time, Ralph Fasanella, 30-year-old former juvenile delinquent from Little Italy's mean streets, high school dropout, anti-Fascist soldier, card-carrying Red and lunchbox-toting factory worker, couldn’t figure it out. Arthritis, friends suggested. At my age? he wondered.
Then, one day while on vacation in 1944, he grabbed pencil and paper and began to draw the first thing he saw, a pair of shoes tossed in a corner.
The pain lessened. He drew some more: a cabin, a canoe. He looked at the drawings. Not bad, he noticed with surprise. He kept at it, drawing the faces of workers at the meetings he organized for the United Electrical Workers union.
A friend suggested he get brushes, paint and a canvas.
Maybe I will, he said. He'd never been in a gallery or walked into a museum. At the art supply shop, he asked, "What's a canvas?"
HE WORE OUT a brush a day. He painted what he saw on the subway and the streets, the work-worn men and women of New York, painting until he realized he was paying more attention to the faces at his union meetings than the words that were spoken.
That was when Ralph Fasanella decided he was going to become a real painter. Not one of those empty, alienated modern artists, whose work he had by now checked out. But a people's painter, a maker of big pictures celebrating the things that inspired him: strikes, baseball games, Coney Island, his immigrant family.
It didn't matter that his stuff wasn't particularly salable, that his figures were stiff and primitive, with amateur stamped all over them. He had something inside him that needed to get itself onto canvas.
Oh yes, politics was a big part of it, he said. The workers should know their proud history, of May Day, of the martyrs Sacco and Vanzetti, of sweatshops and strikes. And so he got to work.
Years later, long after even the stuffiest of critics had given him belated recognition and his paintings hung in museums and private collections and he was painting covers for The New Yorker, Ralph Fasanella still looked more factory hand than artist.
He was 5-feet-5, built like a fire hydrant. He wore big horn-rim glasses that fell over his broad nose, checked flannel shirts, dark gabardine work pants, zipper jackets and a tweed cap pulled down over his wide, bare forehead.
And not for him any reclusive artist's mystery. He could talk the paint off the wall, striking up a conversation with a stranger at a coffee shop in the morning that, if allowed, could carry well into afternoon, a gruff, obscenity-laced, nonstop tour of his thoughts on work, politics, art and, of course, his own life story.
Which went something like this:
RALPH FASANELLA was born on Labor Day, Sept. 2, 1914, the third of six children of Giuseppe and Ginevre, immigrants from Bari, a hardscrabble part of southern Italy. The family squeezed into a tiny walkup tenement on Sullivan St. Joe Fasanella sold ice from a horse-drawn wagon, lugging the big blocks upstairs with a pair of iron tongs. Ralph was supposed to help, but he always ducked out to join his friends on the street, peeking into Jimmy Kelly's saloon on the corner, pinching fruit from the stores. At age 9 he was dispatched to the New York Catholic Protectory in the East Bronx, a bleak, brick-walled reformatory for wayward kids. "Nine years old, and they beat the hell out of me," he recalled years later.
He ran away and was brought back three times. Instead of conquering him, however, the school nurtured a rebel spirit.
In 1928, broke and exhausted, Joe Fasanella gave up and went back to Italy, leaving his wife to raise the family on her earnings in a garment sweatshop. Fiercely proud Ginevre Fasanella, when she wasn't sewing buttonholes, put out an Italian-language anarchist newspaper. This time, son Ralph pitched in to help. His mother's politics, he always said, saved him from the streets.
The Depression hit, and he marched with the Unemployed Councils, then made the next step up the radical ladder, joining the Young Communist League. In 1937, he signed up to fight Franco's Fascists in Spain, sailing with the Abraham Lincoln Brigade, his mother waving goodbye at the dock.
In Spain, he was known as the tough little New York Italian guy who instructed his comrades in the finer points of beer joints and poolrooms. He survived Spain, and later did a turn in the Navy, but his chief business was still radicalism, and back home he organized hospital workers, teamsters and elevator operators right up until the day his fingers told him they wanted to paint.
His idea was to work in a machine shop and paint in his off hours. But the plan clashed with the dawn of the McCarthy era. "Every time I got a job in a factory, someone would come in and see the boss," he remembered. By his count, the FBI chased him out of nine jobs as a national security risk. He married Eva Lazorek in 1950, and her teacher's salary helped them get by until he and his brothers went partners on a garage in the Bronx. Fifteen years were passed at the Happy and Bud gas station at 163rd St. and Third Ave., pumping gas and changing oil filters. In his spare time, he painted churches, Yankee Stadium, May Day rallies.
He filled his paintings with the tiny details of everyday life, painstakingly drawing brick by brick the walls of the reformatory that had held him as a youth, the tenement windows of Italian Greenwich Village, his family grouped around the kitchen table, his mother's sewing machine in a corner, his father symbolically crucified with the ice tongs about his head, the legend "Lest We Forget" inscribed at the picture's top.
There was no market for his work. But he didn't gripe. You want to be a painter, he figured, you work two jobs.
THEN A New York magazine writer named Nicholas Pileggi got wind of him. The cover of the magazine's Oct. 30, 1972, issue ran pictures of Fasanella and his paintings under the headline: "This man pumps gas in the Bronx for a living. He may also be the best primitive painter since Grandma Moses."
Suddenly there was a swirl of cocktail parties and customers. It was a little much for a gas pump jockey. To get away from the crowd and renew his concentration, he took himself to Lawrence, Mass., site of the great 1912 "Bread and Roses" textile mills strike, a turning point in American labor history. He spent three years there, living in a local YMCA, sketching and researching, producing a huge, 5-by-10 tableau. He hung it in a local library and the residents came to see. "Jesus, look, this guy's painting our lives," said one old-timer.
It was music to Fasanella's ears. "I didn't paint my paintings to hang in some rich guy's living room," he said. "They should be seen, not hidden away."
Union activist Ron Carver agreed. In 1988, Carver launched a campaign to raise funds to place Fasanella's work in public places. With financial help from trade unions seeking to reclaim their past, "The Great Strike - Lawrence 1912" was bought and hung in the House of Representatives office building, although the Republicans subsequently evicted it. "Family Supper," the immigrant family portrait, was placed in the restored Immigration Museum on Ellis Island. In 1996, "Subway Riders" was hung - where else? - in the subway, at the IND station at Fifth Ave. and 53rd St. He was playful with kids and he spoke often at schools, passing to another generation the enthusiasm for making pictures. Himself, he painted right up to the end, which came in December 1997, from emphysema. A few weeks later, several hundred of his friends and admirers gathered at the union hall of the Local 1199 hospital workers union and celebrated the life of the little guy whose fingers told him to paint.

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