I am preparing for my first experience as a teacher when I lead a two-day workshop next month. I’ve been thinking what I want to say to the people who come to it. And what I don’t want to tell them. Mainly, I want to stay away from telling them that they should or must do something in any one way. I will show them my process and my techniques but will stay away from all subjective judgments. While I might like to see them render something in one way, their work should be their own creations with its own visual vocabulary and style, all based on their own perceptions.
This reminded me of a post from several years ago that addressed just such an issue. It is one of my favorite stories about the late Ralph Fasanella, the one-time union organizer turned urban folk painter. His enthusiasm for maintaining his personal vision is something I hope to impart to the folks who might be attending the workshop. From back in 2011:
I came into the studio this morning and immediately sat down to read my emails. Among them was the most recent post from AmericanFolk Art@ Cooperstown titled Ralph’s Take On Rembrandt. It concerned the late and great American folk artist Ralph Fasanella and his reaction to criticism and unsolicited advice. I finished reading and burst out laughing. Boy, did it hit close to home!
Over the years, I have been approached by several people who think they are doing me a great service by telling me that I should change the way I paint in some way or that I should try to paint more like some other artist. Early on, when I was first exhibiting my work, I had another more established artist tell me that I should change the way I paint my figures, that they should look the way other artists paint them. I responded to this artist and the others who offered me their advice with a smile and an “I’ll look into that.” But that one time, I also mistakenly heeded the older painter’s words, being inexperienced and seeking a way as I was, and stopped painting figures for a while before realizing that this was not good advice at all.
Here’s the post about Fasanella and his response to such advice.
Ralph Fasanella had trouble painting hands. A lot of trained artists do too, so it is not surprising that a union organizer who turned to drawing suddenly at the age of 40 would struggle with hands early in his career. But he did have something that proved better than years of formal training: he believed that he was an artist and that what he was doing – painting the lives of working people – was a calling that deserved his complete attention and all-consuming passion.
And that made him react when anyone suggested that his paintings weren’t up to snuff. He said that he was painting “felt space,” not real space. His people and the urban settings he placed them in were not realistic in the purest sense of the word, but they sang with spirit and emotion. As Ralph said, “I may paint flat, but I don’t think flat.”
His most memorable quote, and the one that says the most about him, occurred very early in his artistic career, when someone told him that his hands looked like sticks. He ought to study Rembrandt’s hands, they said, in order to get it right. His response is priceless: “Fuck you and Rembrandt! My name is Ralph!”
I may not really adopt Ralph’s approach but you can bet his words will be echoing in my head the next time someone says “You should paint like…”