Posts Tagged ‘Paul D’Ambrosio’

Ralph Fasanella Bread and Roses

Ralph Fasanella- Bread and Roses

This past week was the beginning of May and May Day, the first day of the month which is a holiday of several stripes, from a pagan celebration of the coming of summer to one that celebrates the rights of workers around the world. For me, it always reminds me of the late folk artist Ralph Fasanella. Before becoming a painter, he was a union organizer throughout his life and it is represented in much of his work. The painting at the top, Bread and Roses, for example, depicts the long and often violent 1912 labor strike against the textile mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts. The striker was called the Bread and Roses strike because the strikers demanded both better pay and benefits– the bread– as well as respect and recognition– the roses.

But when I think of Fasanella, beyond his labor and baseball paintings, I am also always reminded of a story about his response to a suggestion from someone about this painting. I have talked about it in posts here before but thought it would be a good story to share once more.

Anyone who does anything that people look at, listen to or read is always susceptible to a host of well-meaning folks who want to share ideas on how whatever it is that you do can be done better. It usually starts with some simple phrase: What you really need to do is… Or it could  be You should really try to… 

I generally listen politely and say something like I’ll look into that or Maybe I will try that sometime. Some of the suggestions are quite good and if I were so inclined might well be something I would do. But that is the key thing here: if I were so inclined.

If it’s not something that I want to do with great energy or excitement, if it’s not something that fits in with how I work and see things, then it ain’t getting done.

Another suggestion is that the artist or author should try to do something like other artists. That always hits a sour spot with me. It usually starts with Your work reminds me so much of… or Have you tried painting like….

I know when I was starting that a goal was to not have my work constantly compared to others so when I talk with young artists I try not to tell them that their work reminds me of another artist. There are exceptions to this, say when an artist is very new to the process and needs the affirmation that they are capturing something in the same way as a well known artist. But unless I know what the artist is trying to do and say with their work, it’s not my place to tell then how they should change their work or how it reminds me of other artists.

That brings me back to my Fasanella story. I am replaying a bit from when I first posted it here ten years ago. The portion with the Fasanella story is from a blog post from the Fenimore Art Museum which has a great folk art collection and whose president, Paul D’Ambrosio, was a friend and chronicler of  Fasanella’s work and life.

Here’s that post from 2011:

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. My style, after all, was my own and didn’t need to conform to what others thought were rules.

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 Hands

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…”

So, those are some of my thoughts on suggestions. Now I am going back to my work, doing it in the only way I know or can. If you have some suggestions for me, well… I’ll look into it.

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William Matthew Prior Self Portrait

I spent several hours yesterday at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown giving a talk to the staff  and docents about my work and the paintings hanging in my current exhibit at the museum.  Many thanks to Maria Vann and the  staff  there for making me feel so welcome and for their many questions and comments.  They are a really impressive group of professionals who make the Fenimore a world-class facility and I was honored to be able to talk with them.

There was also news yesterday at the Fenimore about one of the other exhibits that is currently on display,  Artist & Visionary: William Matthew Prior Revealed.   This is the first  retrospective exhibit that focuses solely on William Matthew Prior, the great 19th century folk portraitist and features more than 40 examples of his work.  Yesterday, it was featured in a review in the Wall Street Journal written by Lee Rosenbaum.

It’s a great show that I encourage anybody within range to take in before it closes at the end of the year.  For a real in-depth peek Rosenbaum has also posted an interview with Fenimore president and CEO, Paul D’Ambrosio.  His insights into the works really bring them and Prior to life.

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Yesterday, there was a guest blog on the Huffington Post from Paul D’Ambrosio, who heads the New York State Historical Association which contains the Fenimore Art Museum and the Farmer’s Museum in Cooperstown.

It’s a really interesting insight into what it takes for a museum in a fairly remote area to thrive, to be a vibrant presence that attracts a wide audience.  As I’ve noted  here, I have an exhibit, Internal Landscapes: The Paintings of GC Myers, opening at the Fenimore in August so I read with interest as D’Ambrosio recounted how the museum has grown in the past few years with heady choices for its exhibits including recent shows featuring the work of John Singer Sargent,  Edward Hopper and an American Impressionists show featuring works from Mary Cassatt (and one from Monet) which is now there.  These shows have drawn wide coverage from the  press and have helped attract museum-goers from distant locales to the museum to take in these shows there as well as its formidable permanent collections of Native American Art,  Amercian Folk Art and Hudson River paintings.  This mixture of a great permanent collection and intriguing new exhibits make the Fenimore a very attractive destination, one that the USA Today called one of the 10 Great Places to See Art in Smaller Cities.

Check out the article and, if you can, the museum and Cooperstown’s other charms as well.  I don’t think you will be disappointed.

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I have mentioned here that my work will be the subject of an exhibition at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown , NY next year, running from August 17 through December 31, 2012.  I had not been at the museum for many, many years so last week Cheri and I decided to pay a visit to both see the space where the exhibit will be hung and to see the museum as a whole.

I haven’t been to Cooperrstown in quite a while but from the moment I enter this little gem of a village I remember how much I like the place.  I’ve used the word idyllic several times recently here but must use it again to describe the atmosphere of this village built around the southern end of Lake Otsego, the lake famously referred to as Glimmerglass by James Fenimore Cooper, a name that now graces the renowned seasonal operatic company that resides there, the Glimmerglass Opera.  It is just a lovely  place especially in the quieter days of late autumn when the tourist trade is a bit slower and the beauty of the place shines through. 

Turning by the grand Otesaga Hotel, you head north up the west side of Lake Otsego and come quickly to the museum, resting on a slight rise above the lake.  The museum was built on the former site of the James Fenimore Cooper farmhouse and across the road is the famed Farmer’s Museum with its beautiful stone barns and outbuildings. 

I can’t really tell you how impressed I was with the museum, from the moment I entered the front doors  until the moment we drove away.  It is a truly beautiful space that is maintained to the highest standards.  We met with with Paul D’Ambrosio who we have known for many years and who is the President of the museum.  He gave us a tour through the galleries, giving us an education on many of the pieces.  For instance, the piece shown to the right, Eel Spearing at Setauket from William Sidney Mount, is considered the painting which serves as the face of the Fenimore Collection.  We were told that the lady in the painting from 1845 still has family that lives near the site of this painting on Long Island and that they periodically make the pilgrimage to the museum to visit their now famous ancestor.

After seeing most of the collections, including the  fabulous Thaw Collection of American Indian Art, we finally made our way to the galleries on the second floor and came to the East Gallery, where next year’s exhibit will be held.  I was a bit nervous with anticipation, to tell the truth.  But finally seeing the space and visualizing my paintings in the space helped settle my nerves.  The space is neither small nor large but has a sense of intimacy that I think will serve my work well.  There is a fireplace at one end that I could see my work easily hanging above.  The anxiousness of the unknown faded away and the actual idea of how the show might look began to take its place.  I now had sometihing tangible on which  to build the show.  A different sort of anxiety set in but it is the kind I often have before any show so I view it as an old friend who will ultimately help me in my task.

We talked for a bit about wall colors for the show which I hadn’t even considered.  I began considering colors that will push the work forward off the walls and accentuate the color in my work.  As we were leaving, Paul told me that my show would ne hanging at a great time next year as the show  hanging at that time in the other upstairs gallery would be an exhibit of American Impressionism featuring Mary Cassatt.   They would have a Monet, as well, to show his influence on the American painters.  He said there would be great crowds in the late summer for that show and would be great exposure for my exhibit.

So, we departed and I drove through the rain of that day with new concepts of how the work in the exhibit would relate to the space and to each other.  I began to have second thoughts about some pieces that I had originally thought might be perfect and paintings that I had dismissed began to come back into play.  The visit and the tremendous quality of the space and the works there raised the bar for what I wanted from my own work.  The task now seemed larger than before and I knew that I would have to really focus in order to make it work as I know it can.

In short, it was a good visit.  Thanks for the wonderful tour, Paul!

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Yesterday on the Folk Art at Cooperstown site, Paul D’Ambrosio wrote about this painting that is in their collection.  It is by a late 19th century painter by the name of John Rasmussen and is of the Almshouse in Berks County, Pennsylvania.   This piece has really stuck with me since I saw it, not only because it is such a beautiful piece of work with wonderful color and composition.  It’s more because of how it almost lovingly portrays an aspect of society at that time that is largely overlooked– the poorhouse.

The poorhouses of that time were a depository for what was then considered the refuse of society– the mentally ill, the homeless, the disabled, just released prisoners and abandoned children.  In fact, the artist of this painting, John Rasmussen, was a resident at this particular poorhouse, having had severe problems with excessive drinking throughout  his life. 

You can imagine how terrible the conditions might have been at many of these facilities.  But many, like this Berks County Almshouse had a mission of self-sufficiency and rehabilitation.  It required all physically able residents to work on the farm which supplied all of the food for the resident population.  They believed that the ills of many of these people were the result of not understanding the value of hard work. 

It actually was a fairly successful system at the time until the demands of a growing general population overwhelmed its capabilities.  There came a point where it was no longer economically possible to have this type of institution in very county or town and the poorhouses faded from sight and have remained there, even in our memories of the past.  I can’t say whether the system was better or worse than anything we have today or whether the residents of places such as this Almshouse would remember it fondly or with horror.  But the loving way this painting is presented doesn’t give one the sense of a dark place but rather a place filled with renewed life.  And I think for some, like John Rasmussen, it did represent a refuge and a palce of restoration when he periodically reached his bottom.

The Berks County Almshouse is now completely gone save for a small stone wall.  But it is preserved in the paintings of Rasmussen and others, such as this earlier painting of it by painter Charles Hoffman, also a resident at the Almshouse.  And writer John Updike fashioned the subject of his first novel, The Poorhouse Fair, after this very place. 

I’m sure most were not like this beautiful scene but they remain part of our past and deserve to be remembered.  There is another site, The Poorhouse Story, that documents the history of American poorhouses.  It has a state list with pages devoted to the poorhouses of most counties.  It’s an interesting glimpse into a shaded part of our past.


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I came across this on  Candler Arts , website that features an eclectic collection of American folk art available for purchase.  I wrote a couple weeks ago about one of their paintings, a nativity scene from Jimmy Lee Sudduth painted with mud and housepaint.  When I saw this piece I gave a chuckle and thought about the reactions it would bring hanging in a shop or gallery. 

It is probably an advertising piece for a monument maker, probably in the first half of the 20th century, probably in a rural region.  Advertising pieces through the last century or so have provided us with some great folk art.  Think of the large cigar store figures.  Paul D’Ambrosio, who writes the vastly informative blog, American Folk Art @ Cooperstown, has written a number of times about the handmade signs and figures that once graced the counters of small shops and stores in earlier America.  Many are a bit rough, like this sign, but all are simply trying to communicate with their customers and did so with a sort of grace that we can still see in them today. 

One of my favorites from Paul’s blog is a piece from the Fenimore Art Museum collection believed to be from a freed slave named Job from around 1825.  It is an African-American cigar store figure and is a sensitive depiction of such a figure for the time. A female figure holding out a bundle of cigars, it is not a harsh caricature one often would see at that time.  But is still an eye-catching figure which was the purpose of these pieces, to attract customers into the shops. 

 I would definitely stop and take a serious look today if I saw a carving like this outside a shop.  And maybe I would even ask about their layaway plan.

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I saw this the other day on one of my favorite blogsAmerican Folk Art @ Cooperstown, which serves up great American folk art and the stories behind it on a regular basis.   Paul D’Ambrosio, who writes this blog and is an authority on folk art, featured this wonderful protrait from the early 1800’s, probably from eastern New York state where the painter  Ammi Phillips plied his trade. 

Having your portrait painted at that time was the only way that one’s image might ever be recorded and therefore took on a great importance, the sitter wanting to give a full accounting of who they were.  It was not unusual to display evidence of your trade, to show the tools that enabled the sitter to afford the luxury of such a painting.  But I doubt that many went quite as far as this man.

He is obviously a doctor.  Well, at least I hope he’s a doctor because I really wouldn’t be comfortable if I were the man whose eye is being held open if he were, say, a carpenter.  This appears to be a doctor about to perform cataract surgery.  You wouldn’t think so but this surgery, in different forms, has been around since well before the time of Christ, as early as the  6th century BC.  It’s one of those things thqat makes me very thankful for the time in which I live, for all its flaws.

It’s a  portrait that makes you wonder about the lives of the people in it, which I think  makes it a great portrait.  It has an oddball quality as well that transcends mere portraiture.  Just a wonderful and strange piece of Americana.  If you wish to know more about the world of American folk art, check in at the American Folk Art blog.  It is a treasure chest of information and stories,

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In yesterday’s post on the blog American Folk Art @ Cooperstown, Paul D’Ambrosio wrote about a bas relief carving in the collection of the Fenimore Museum.  It was one of a series concerning Sullivan’s Diner in Horseheads, NY and was carved by renowned folk artist  Mary Michael Shelley, who works just up the road in Ithaca.  The piece shown here is different from the carving in the Fenimore Collection but both feature the diner’s intimate interior with counter that runs the length of the small trailer with round stools.

I was really interested in this blog post for a couple of reasons.  First, I’ve always been interested in bas relief carvings and, as I wrote her before, started carving in the years before I became a painter.  Much of my painting is done very much like a carving , in the way I see and render the elements.  The second, and more important, reason was that Sullivan’s Diner has always been in my sight in some way for my entire life.  Built in the 1940’s in New Jersey, it spent its early years as Vic’s Diner on Elmira’s eastside,  from where my family hails.  I have distinct memories of its appearance on the corner near St. Joe’s Hospital as a child, even a memory where I was sent sprawling on the sidewalk in front of it on my bicycle.

In 1974, it was moved up the road to Horseheads where Art and Fran Sullivan renamed it and ran it.  Art was a railroad fanatic of the highest order and had an actual engine and an attached car behind the diner’s new location on Old Ithaca Road.  Fran ran the restaurant , doling out generous portions of eggs and bacon for many years from the grill behind the counter of this small trailer diner.  This was not one of the larger streamlined beauties you see along the turnpikes of Jersey.  It was cramped inside with a few booths on one side of the aisle and the counter on the other.  The woodwork and feel was more 1930’s even though it was built in the 40’s.  Living in Horseheads, I ate many breakfasts there over the years and always felt like I was walking into Fran’s home kitchen when I walked through those doors, which seemed to transform you back to a much earlier time when you passed through the doors.

The food was okay, simple but satisfying.  The coffee watery but tasty. But the attraction was the sense of community that the place fostered.  Walking in through the old door you felt like you were entering Fran’s personal kitchen and she treated you as though you were a guest in her home.  Even though I was only a sporadic visitor she always made me feel as though I were one of her regulars, making me feel as comfortable as the regulars who laughed and joked at the counter each morning. 

 I haven’t been there often since Fran retired but the place was reopened under new management and seems to be flourishing.  But I do have fond memories of that place and am gratified that Sullivan’s Diner will forever be immortalized in the collections of at least two museums.  The piece at the bottom is the one from the Fenimore Museum and another is in the National Museum of Women and the Arts in Washington, DC. 

Thanks for the fine work, Mary Shelley, and thanks, Paul, for pointing it out.

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fasanella great strike lawrence 1912

If hard work were such a wonderful thing, surely the rich would have kept it all to themselves.

——Lane Kirkland

On this day, Labor Day, I am showing a a painting from the great American folk primitive  painter Ralph Fasanella, depicting the famed Bread and Roses strike that took place at the textile plants in Lawrence, Massachusetts in 1912.  I thought it fitting that something be shown that is closer to the spirit of this holiday which has faded from the public’s knowledge in recent years.

I was a union member in my first job at a Loblaw’s grocery store when I was sixteen years old and a few years later I was a Teamster at the A&P factory where I was employed for several years.  I was the union steward in my department for the last few years, a position that I took because nobody else wanted the hassle of it and meant that I was protected from being laid off so long as my department was operating.  The hassle came from the fact that there was always an argument to be had, either with company supervisors who tried to twist the rules to their advantage or with co-workers who felt the union didn’t go far enough.  It was a very educational experience.

The image of labor unions over the years has crumbled, perceived now as corrupt and self-serving.  Probably a well deserved image.  But the failings of these unions are the failings of men, the same failings that the company owners possessed that the early unions organized against.  Greed and a lack of empathy for their workers.  It doesn’t take much research to discover that the work conditions of the last 130 or 140 years were deplorable.  Long hours.  Low pay.  Incredibly unsafe conditions.  Dismissal for any reason.  No rights whatsoever.

Today, many view industry as this amiable, father-like figure but don’t realize how much blood was spilled by early union organizers and members to obtain the things we now take for granted as our rights.  Industry did not willingly give up anything to the worker without being forced.  I can imagine what our world would look like without the efforts of our unions.  This very holiday would not exist to have it’s roots forgotten.  The idea of vacations would only exist for the company owners.  The pay scale would be similar to those places on the Earth where many of our jobs have migrated, places that allow the avarice of the companies to override the rights and safety of the workers.  Places where sweatshops still operate, as they once did here.  Places where unschooled children toil in dirty, dank conditions, as they once did here.  Places where the health and safety of the workers is secondary to the profit they provide, as it once was here.

You may despise the unions now for their corruption but make no mistake about it- without them our country would look much different.  And not in a good way…

I will be posting more on Ralph Fasanella in a later post but for more info, check out this book from my friend Paul D’Ambrosio, who is perhaps the foremost authority on Fasanella and his work, Ralph Fasanella’s America.

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John Gadsby Chapman- Excavations on a Roman CampagnaI mentioned in a my post yesterday about my friend, Paul D’Ambrosio, and his new blog.  I spoke of his curatorship at the Fenimore Art Museum but failed to mention a new exhibit that he has put together, America’s Rome: Artists in the Eternal City 1800-1900.

The New York Times didn’t fail to mention it however, having a fine review in yesterday’s edition.

Many congratulations to Paul on his successful exhibit which will hang until the end of the year.  If you’re ever in the beautiful Cooperstown area, stop in and see a lovely town and a wonderful exhibit.

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