Ralph Fasanella was born on Labor Day in 1914 and died on December 16, 1997. He worked in machine shops and dress shops, drove trucks, pumped gas and organized workers for higher wages and a better life. One of Fasanella’s most famous paintings portrays the 1912 Lawrence, Mass., textile strike, when tens of thousands of workers marched for “Bread and Roses,” too. Another, “District 65 Build Your Union,” shows an idealized union headquarters where members meet to discuss workplace problems and vote for their leaders. It is also a place where they gather for lectures, to borrow books, watch movies, attend art shows and dance to live music.
After dropping out of school to work on his father’s ice truck, Fasanella became a voracious reader and a lifelong devotee of public libraries. He was a political activist and a fervent believer that we all have a duty to make the world a better place for future generations. Although he was self-taught, Fasanella rejected the labels of “primitive,” “naïve” and even “folk artist.” Painting until the wee hours of the morning to the tunes of John Coltrane, Charles Mingus and Dexter Gordon, Fasanella described himself as a jazz artist. He said he painted from his belly and would urge young aspiring artists to reject pretention, to be authentic, to paint what they know and where they came from. Fasanella exhorted us all to remember our history and be proud of our heritage, “Lest We Forget.”
Sponsored by Union Plus, the AFL-CIO exhibit, Ralph Fasanella: The Art of Social Engagement, features 10 paintings and three drawings. It is open to the public Monday through Friday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
The Smithsonian American Art Museum is displaying 19 original Fasanella paintings now through August 3 in an exhibit titled “Ralph Fasanella: Lest We Forget.” The museum is at 8th and F Streets, N.W., near the Gallery Place-Chinatown Metro station.