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Ralph Fasanella- May Day -1948

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Today, May 1, is May Day. Some folks see it as a festival of spring  that began as an ancient pagan celebration, complete with May Poles, May Queens and May Baskets. Others recognize it as a day celebrating laborers, trade unions and the working class, otherwise known as International Workers’ Day.

I think that labor unions have been integral to the rise of the American middle class and to many things that we now take for granted. Things like eight hour workdays, weekends, child labor laws, workplace safety, minimum wages, health insurance, paid vacations, retirement pensions and on and on. Things that provide a sense of comfort, security and self-worth for working folks.

I believe that the demise of unions goes hand in hand with the growing chasm in income inequality between the owners and the workers of this world. The owners had the shrewdness and the resources to mount a sustained campaign over the years that constantly painted unions in an unflattering light, to the point that many workers began to side with the owners, often against their own self interest.

It’s the same kind of thought control that makes workers believe that big tax breaks and other benefits reserved for owners will have a magical trickle down effect and will somehow enrich their own lives.

Unfortunately, human nature overrules trickle down economics every time. The benefits that the people in  labor unions fought and died for — yes, died for— are soon under attack from owners who need more and more and more. The labor battles will no doubt have to be fought again at some point and lord knows what ugliness will come from that.

The painting shown at the top and a favorite of mine, is titled May Day and is in the collection of the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown. I thought it was a fitting image for today. It was painted in 1948 by a favorite artist of mine, American folk artist Ralph Fasanella, who I have written about here a number of times. He was a labor organizer in the 30’s and 40’s when the workers’ movement was making the powerful strides that created the mythic middle class that inhabited the America of the 1950’s. I am not going to spend a lot of time describing his career here but will point out that his work often portrayed labor and workers.

It is powerful stuff, to say the least, and pertinent both for its own time and now.

Here is the description for the painting from the museum’s website:

Ralph Fasanella was born in New York City to Italian immigrant parents. He spent his youth helping his father on his ice delivery route, and absorbed the streets, tenements, and people that would later inspire his art. His mother, a literate and socially conscious woman, introduced Fasanella to antifascist and trade union causes. He eventually became a union organizer until he began to paint in 1945. Fasanella was an acclaimed “primitive” painter in the 1940s, and then painted in obscurity for 25 years until his “discovery” in 1972. May Day represents Fasanella’s attempt to capture the spirit of the workers’ movements of the 1930s, focusing upon the huge May Day parades that annually drew up to 200,000 demonstrators to Union Square in New York City. At the left, marchers pour out of the crowded streets and tenements and descend upon New York’s Union Square. Their large banners proclaim support for organized labor and racial unity under the overarching cause of “Peace, Democracy, Security.” At the head of the parade is a magnificent horse-drawn float, complete with May Pole and women in ethnic costumes. The marchers pass a reviewing stand with a backdrop that serves as a shrine to labor heroes. Across a colorful bed of flowers lies the artist’s utopian vision at the right. It is a place where workers, liberated from the burden of twelve- and sixteen-hour shifts, have the freedom to pursue cultural and recreational activities.

 

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The musical Hair opened on Broadway on this date 50 years ago, back in 1968. I grew up listening to this album and most of the songs feel like they are ingrained somehow in my DNA. Hailed as the American tribal love-rock musical, it was a groundbreaking show with songs that permeated the culture and helped define the era. Aquarius certainly feels like that time and that year.

And what a year 1968 was, here and around the world.

There were the tragic assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr and Robert F. Kennedy in April and June.

In a stormy election season, the 1968 Democratic Convention  was an eight-day violent skirmish in the streets of Chicago between police and protesters. Ultimately, Richard Nixon was elected president.

Here and around the globe, student anti-war protesters filled the streets and sometimes, as in the cases of Columbia University and Howard University, took over and occupied buildings.

North Korea captured the American surveillance ship the USS Pueblo and held its crew prisoner for 11 months. North Korea released the crew but kept the ship. It is now an exhibit Victorious Fatherland Liberation War Museum in Pyongyang.

There was the Tet Offensive and the My Lai Massacre in Viet Nam.

You had the Prague Spring that results later in the year with the Russians marching into Czechoslovakia to exert their control.

Before the opening of the 1968 Mexico Olympics, students protested in the streets that the money spent by the country for the Olympics would be better put to use in much needed social programs. The protesters were surrounded by the army and fired on, killing over 200 students and injuring over 1000 more.

The Olympics themselves were memorable with Bob Beamon soaring to an unfathomable record in the long jump. And, of course, there was the iconic image of Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the podium for the medal ceremony for the 200-meter run. Bare-footed with their heads cast downward, both raised gloved fists in the Black Power salute.

That would be enough for most years– maybe most decades. But there was even more that I don’t have time to go in here that make it one of the most chaotic and super-charged years in our history.

And among all that, the subversive sound of Hair played on. Well, it’s been fifty years and the world seems to have rotated back to find us in a similar time of chaos.

Some things never change, I guess.

So, for this week’s Sunday morning music I thought something from Hair would be fitting. So many great choices  but here are a couple of  better known selections, both of which became hits for artists that covered them in the following years. The first is Easy To Be Hard which was hit for Three Dog Night. The second is the title anthem which was #1 hit for The Cowsills.

Give a listen and have a good Sunday.


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Paul Nash, Messenger

I am no longer an artist interested and curious, I am a messenger who will bring back word from the men who are fighting to those who want the war to go on for ever. Feeble, inarticulate, will be my message, but it will have a bitter truth, and may it burn their lousy souls.

Paul Nash

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You most likely don’t know the name of British artist Paul Nash. I wasn’t familiar with the name until just recently.

He lived from 1889 until 1946 and was a force in bringing Modernism to British painting. But perhaps he is best known for his scenes of war, primarily from WW I. They have a surreal otherworldly quality that creates a sense of disturbing unease.

As they should.

Nash knew the horror of war firsthand, fighting in the British trenches of the Great War. His quote at the top is a powerful indictment of homeland politicians, chicken hawks and war profiteers who go on and on, seemingly unaffected as others die for their words and deeds and bottom lines.

The sentiment still rings true today.

There was a tremendous amount of paintings of the time that depicted the terrible reality of the first World War. It was the first modern war that used technology that was designed to kill the enemy in mass and it left a psychic scar that still hasn’t healed to this day. Nash’s work was among the best of this work.

The painting at the top is The Menin Road. It’s a powerful image that is large in scale, as you can see in the photo at the bottom.

5.1.5

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We’re in the Fourth of July weekend here but I am pretty busy, with still much to do to finish up work on my show, Self Determination,  for the West End Gallery that opens in less than two weeks, on July 14.

I’m pretty locked in and didn’t even realize until just the other day that the holiday was approaching. I probably will work through the holiday but that doesn’t bother me. It’s my choice, my preference, my freedom to choose to do so.

Maybe that’s what the holiday is about, after all.

I was reading from David McCullough‘s book, 1776, earlier today. His description of our citizen soldiers at the onset of the American Revolution made me feel closer to that spirit of independence. He described them as unkempt and undisciplined, displaying little or no respect for taking orders from anyone but willing to work tremendously hard toward a goal.

I can identify with that.

I thought for this Sunday I would share another favorite song, one that contains some good advice for this divided nation on it’s most unifying of holidays. It’s Let’s Work Together from the seminal 60’s blues-boogie band, Canned Heat. Words to heed and a great rolling rhythm to carry you through the holiday.

I love this video from 1969 on a German music show of the time, Beat-Club. It’s kind of cheesy with bad angles and an audience that seems like they were instructed to under no circumstances show any reaction to the music. And the band is hardly the most photogenic. But it shows the band in its original glory, with lead sing Bob “Bear” Hite and guitarist Alan “Owl” Wilson,  both of who died much too early, Wilson  a year later in 1970 and Hite in 1981.

Give a look and a listen and have a great day.

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Watching the video the other day of the Rose Garden hullabaloo with the faces of the wealthy and predominantly white men all gleefully gloating the mere passage of a House bill that has the potential to do far more harm than good made me angry and ashamed for this country.  To see them so wildly exulting something that does nothing to address the very real problems that exist in the availability and delivery of healthcare to our citizens is an abomination. They shift around some money to the advantage of those already well endowed and they celebrate like they personally defeated an alien force hellbent on overthrowing the Earth.

What drives these people? I am sure that if asked, they would spew the requisite “they’re there to serve the people“nonsense. But they seem to believe, if their actions are evidence of any sort, that the people they must serve the most are the people who need their assistance the least.

Do these men in congress really know the true extent and face of poverty or is it just an abstract notion, anonymous and in the distance? Personally, I believe they should be speaking for those who cannot speak for themselves, that they should be acting in order to lift those in need. Instead, they seem quite content in enriching their own bank accounts and those of their cronies while they do little, if anything, for the greater good.

Maybe they should take a few minutes and look at some of the photos of Lewis Hine, the photo-journalist and social activist.  His powerful photos taken around the turn of the century brought to light the plight of working children and spurred on the union movement that brought about great reforms for workers across the nation. Perhaps if they studied the faces of the children in these photos, they would get a better understanding of what should be their own purpose in their positions of responsibility. Those faces can still be found today, if they would only take the time to look.

Here’s a nice slideshow of some of Hine’s photos set to the Gary Jules version of the Tears For Fears song, Mad World.

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Tonight, the West End Gallery celebrates its 40th anniversary of selling art on Corning’s lovely Market Street. There is a coinciding opening for a retrospective show of the paintings of the gallery’s co-founder, Tom Gardner. The festivities begin at 4:30 this afternoon with a ribbon cutting and following that there will be music from guitarist Bill Groome, plenty to eat and drink and a few surprises.

I’ve said and written this many times before, but without the West End Gallery I have no idea what or where I would be. The chance to show my work given to me by then gallery owners Lin and Tom Gardner forever changed the direction of my life, opening new doors of opportunity that I couldn’t even imagine in my former life. Ultimately, it changed how I viewed the world and myself.

It’s rare that you can pinpoint a moment in time that alters your life in such a drastic manner that you can see the results that extend from that moment a la It’s a Wonderful Life. But I have such a moment from a day in early 1995 when Tom critiqued my work and Lin asked me to show a few pieces in their next show. Without that moment with them, every good thing that has come to me via my work most likely would have never happened. The numerous paintings that have found their way around the world, the 50 or so solo shows and the many, many wonderful people I have been fortunate to encounter through my work– all of it would probably have never occurred.

I don’t want to even consider what would be without that moment.

In my own way, I say “Thank You” to them every day I enter my studio and take part in the life and work that I so enjoy now. It is all due to that moment and I will never forget that.  Nor will I ever be able to thank them enough.

For forty years, the West End Gallery has given me and so many other artists an opportunity to take a chance on a different life.  It has persisted through the ups and downs of the economy, through booms and busts.  Now under the capable hands of Tom and Lin’s daughter Jesse and her husband, John, it is looking forward even as it celebrates its past tonight. They are working hard every day to make the gallery better in every way.

I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s another 40 years in the cards for the West End Gallery.

So, if you’re in the area tonight, make your way to the West End Gallery for a celebratory drink, a little bite, some great conversation and some wonderful art and music. If you’ve never been, they’ll make you feel right at home.

I can tell you that from first-hand experience.

Thank you for everything, Lin and Tom and Jesse and John.

I mean that literally.

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Noon hour in the Ewen Breaker, Pennsylvania Coal Co. Location: South Pittston, Pennsylvania.

Noon hour in the Ewen Breaker, South Pittston, Pennsylvania- Lewis Hines

The labor movement was the principal force that transformed misery and despair into hope and progress. Out of its bold struggles, economic and social reform gave birth to unemployment insurance, old-age pensions, government relief for the destitute and, above all, new wage levels that meant not mere survival but a tolerable life. The captains of industry did not lead this transformation; they resisted it until they were overcome. When in the thirties the wave of union organization crested over the nation, it carried to secure shores not only itself but the whole society.

Martin Luther King, Jr.

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Another Labor Day.

If you ask someone what the holiday represents they will no doubt say that it is symbolic end of summer.  A last picnic.  One last real summer weekend at the lake or shore. If you push them they might finally say that it honors the workers of this country.

But it really was created to celebrate the American Labor Movement, those unions and organizers that brought about all of the changes that Dr. King pointed out in the quote above from his 1965 speech before the AFL-CIO.

Fair wages, a shorter workday, a safer workplace, pensions, unemployment insurance– all of these things came from the hard and dangerous efforts of union organizers.  As King points out, the owners– the captains of industry—  did not agree willingly to these changes.  No, they fought with every resource at their disposal including the influence they bought from politicians and the use of violence.  The history of the labor movement is littered with bodies of workers killed in skirmishes with the forces of the owners.

Every step of progress throughout our history has been opposed by those in power.  But progress and change has always come thanks to the efforts of  people like those in the labor movement.

The use of children in the workforce was another thing that was ultimately changed by the labor movement.  It’s hard to believe that the scenes shown here in the famed photos of  photographer and social reformer Lewis Hine took place just over a hundred years ago in the coal mines of eastern Pennsylvania.  Harder yet to believe is that federal labor laws for child labor were not fully enacted until 1938.  Earlier attempts at legislation by congress in 1916 and 1922 had been challenged in court by industry and were deemed unconstitutional.

Lewis Hine -Penn Coal Co Ewen Breaker Pittston 1911Imagine your child (or your nephew or grandchild) at age 12.  Imagine them spending 10 or 12 or even 14 hours a day, six days a week in one of the breaker rooms of a coal mine like the one shown here on the right.  Hunched over in the gritty dust of the coal, they picked the coal for differing sizes and to sort out impurities.  Imagine the men who are shown in the photo with sticks poking your child, perhaps kicking him to speed him up.  Imagine all of this for  seven and a half cents per hour.

There was no school books for these kids.  No soccer.  No violin practices.  Just a future filled with misery and drudgery and most likely a black lung.  Imagine that.  And think that it was all taking place less than a hundred years ago and it ended because of the labor unions and the brave people who fought for them.

I know there are problems that arose in the unions over time.  They are not perfect by any means.  But that doesn’t take away from the incredible progress that they provided for our nation’s worker.  Despite their shortcomings, the idea of workers uniting to have one strong voice is as important now as it was a century ago.

So celebrate the day at the shore or in a picnic.  Have a great day.  But take one single moment and think of those kids in that Pennsylvania mine and the people who set them free.

Breaker boys working in Ewen Breaker of Pennsylvania Coal Co. For some of their names see labels 1927 to 1930. Location: South Pittston, Pennsylvania.

Breaker boys working in Ewen Breaker of Pennsylvania Coal Co.Location: South Pittston, Pennsylvania. Photo: Lewis Hine

Group of Breaker boys. Smallest is Sam Belloma, Pine Street. (See label #1949). Location: Pittston, Pennsylvania.

Group of Breaker boys, Pennsylvania 1911  Photo: Lewis Hine

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