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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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Took a break from the outside world yesterday and finally got to see the film Maudie which is about the late Canadian folk artist and national treasure, Maud Lewis.  Sally Hawkins lovingly portrays the artist and Ethan Hawke  serves as her rough and surly husband. It is an absolutely charming and moving film, one that I would recommend to anyone who is interested in the creative drive.

Or in the human spirit.

It captures that compulsive drive that so many self taught artists, particularly folk artists, possess. It is an inherent need and desire to have a means of expression using whatever is at their disposal. Looking around my studio now, I feel spoiled beyond belief by the materials I have on hand. Or by the fact that I am relatively healthy and can hold a brush easily in my hands. Thinking about Maud makes me feel a little guilty for not using all my advantages and painting even more.

It is, simply put, a lovely film. In these dark days filled with stupidity and hatred, it is a breath of fresh air — cool Nova Scotian air!— to focus on that image of a arthritis-wracked little woman sitting in front of her humble window in her tiny remote cabin, happily painting the world as she saw it and as she wanted it to be.

Here’s a little video that gives a brief history of Maud Lewis.

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Several years back, I wrote here about the late Croatian painter Ivan Generalic (1914-1992). I don’t really know how his work is categorized. He mixed folk art, rural Eastern European village life and folklore, and allegory in a painting style that was richly colored and inviting. It was most often painted on glass which increased its vibrancy and glow. It had a certain charm that reminded me of the jungle paintings of Henri Rousseau.

I thought I’d share a video this morning that features his work set to music, “Raindrops Prelude” by Grupo Pedagógico Infantil. It’s a nice and interesting watch. I urge you to take a few minutes and give it a look and a listen.

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Ralph Fasanella - Night Game/ 'Tis a Bunt 1981

Ralph Fasanella – Night Game/ ‘Tis a Bunt 1981

GC Myers -Foundation smAh, the dark days of winter are receding.  The trees are budding out and the green of the grass (under the newly fallen four inches of snow!) is pushing aside the dead growth of a long gone last year.  The robins have returned and once again the world makes sense–  the daily metronome that is major league baseball returns today.

It’s opening day.

I am not going to wax poetic today about the game, its history or the place that it holds in the hearts of so many.  It just feels like the real New Year’s Day for me and many other fans, that day on which the year truly begins.

The painting at the top, Night Game/ ‘Tis a Bunt,  is one of my favorite baseball paintings from the great folk painter Ralph Fasanella.  I love this particular piece and the way the baseball diamond feels more like a real diamond in an ornate and wondrous setting.  Great piece.  And this piece on the right is from my own baseball series from a few years back.  I loved doing that series and these pieces remain among my personal favorites.  I haven’t painted one in a while but sometimes think about revisiting that old ballfield.

For this Sunday Morning Music, in honor of the game, I’m going to make it a double-header.  First, there’s Take Me out to Ballpark, as played by Harpo Marx on I Love Lucy in 1955 , which is Cheri’s all-time favorite.  I’ve shown it several times but it’s so darn good, it never gets old.  And after that there’s  bluesy 1976 homage to late great pitcher Jim “Catfish” Hunter which is called, of course, Catfish.

Have a great Sunday and hopefully you’ll get to hear the umpire call out “Play ball!

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Vintage Baseball Photos 1800'sFor me,  Punxsutawney Phil is not the ultimate predictor that winter is coming to an end.  No, it is those first reports from Florida and Arizona that baseball’s Spring Training is beginning that does it for me.  The baseball is in the air  once more and I feel so much better when I am immersed in the rhythms of baseball.

And there is such a rhythm.  With its 162 games played over its six month season, it is present in some form on a daily basis for those who follow the game.  Each day brings something new that adds to the game’s long history, to its poetry and legend, to its voluminous statistics, to its never-ending debates over the superiority of teams, players and eras.  For someone like me who is a huge fan of the game’s folklore and history, nothing could be better.

Speaking of folklore, the photo at the top is perhaps the oldest image of the game, taken sometime before 1870.  It sold a few years ago on eBay for  $3800.  It shows a group of schoolboys at the Bluff School in Claremont, New Hampshire.  It was used in  Ken BurnsBaseball documentary and was taken by the early photographic studio of French & Sawyer which operated in Keene, NH.   Their partnership dissolved in 1870 so the photo was taken before that time.  It could be as early as the late 1850’s,  pre-Civil War.  The interesting thing is that there is action in the photo, a rarity for any photos of the era.  It also shows the players in positions that closely resemble today’s game which adds to that feeling of connection through time that is a part of the game.

The painting below is an early painting of the game.  I don’t know who painted it or when and can’t find anything about it.  It was listed on a folk art site and is no longer there so details on it are sketchy.  I think it’s a fun piece and reminds me that baseball is coming soon and winter is coming to an end.

The Pigs Baseball Club Ca 1890 21 x 30

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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:

Ralph Fasanella- Stickball

Ralph Fasanella- Stickball

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.”

Rembrandt- The Jewish Bride (Detail)

Rembrandt- The Jewish Bride (Detail)

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…”

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Theodore Rousseau- Under The Birches  1842

Theodore Rousseau- Under The Birches 1842

It is better in art to be honest than clever.

–Theodore Rousseau

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Theodore Rousseau (1812-1867) was part of the Barbizon school of painters, an art movement in 19th century France that was instrumental in moving away from from formalism and towards naturalism and artistic expression of emotion.  It was very influential on many of the painters who later created the Impressionist movement.

Rousseau and Jean-Francois Millet, best known for his peasant scenes, were the two artists from this school whose work really spoke to me, seeming to have honest emotional content in them.  Perhaps that is why his short quote resonated so strongly with me.  That and the fact that I have found myself less impressed with cleverness than honest expression through the years.  I have always believed that art comes from tapping into the subconscious, something other than the part of our brain that produces conscious thought.

I guess I just don’t think we are that smart.  Or clever.

I know I am not.  My work is at its best when it comes from a place of honesty and real emotion, when it is made with more intuition than forethought.  When it is too thought out and directed it begins to feel stilted and contrived, losing its naturalness and rhythm and becoming heavy-handed.

That is probably the reason I tell young or beginning painters to focus not so much on the actual idea of a painting but more on things like paint handling and color quality, those things that make up the surface of a painting and convey the real meaning of the painting. And I think that is what Rousseau was probably getting at in his terse quote.

But maybe not.  Like I said, I am not that clever.

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