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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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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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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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GC Myers- Geometry of the HeartIt was Opening Day for Major League Baseball the other day, which is always  a red letter day for me.  It’s sort of like 2013 has officially began, that my day to day life now has something with which to synchronize, something to fall in rhythm with.  So, even though I have been feeling under the weather for several days,  I was able to complete a new piece, one that had been banging around in my head for a long time.  It incorporated the perfect geometry of the baseball diamond nestled among a tightly clustered neighborhood of Red Roofs.  It’s an odd piece, one that feels both typical and atypical at once.  That’s a quality that I like.

ralph_fasanella_sandlot_baseball_1373_356I have been wanting to incorporate the baseball diamond into one of my landscapes, perhaps influenced by some of the folk art paintings that did it so well.  I have featured some of these here, such as Malcah Zeldis’ Homage to Hank Greenberg, shown at the bottom of this page or Ralph Fasanella’s Sandlot Baseball,  shown here on the left.  These are paintings I like very much as much for the baseball aspect as for the wonderful folk art manner in which they are painted.  There is something in the sight of a diamond that has a hypnotic effect on me, something I hoped to capture in a painting.

I always remember the feeling when I was a kid and we went to Shea Stadium to see the Mets play, especially for night games.  You would head out from the dim light of the concourse and emerge into the brightness of the field lights.  The green of the field was so vibrant, the brownish red of the infield dirt so rich.  There was something perfect in looking down on that diamond, a design that made so much sense to a child’s mind.  A beautiful geometry, one that equalizes weaknesses and strengths.  The length of the basepaths, for example, are such that  on a hard hit  ball to the infield a fast runner can be easily thrown out at first but a slower runner can often beat out a soft groundball.

Here, a small man could easily conquer a much larger man from a distance of 60′ 6 “, the distance from homeplate to the pitching rubber.   Skill overcomes pure strength, size and athleticism.  If you ever saw Michael Jordan flailing helplessly at minor league curveballs, you’ll know what I mean.

I could write a lot more here.  And I probably should.  But I simply want to show this new piece, a 20″ by 24″ that I’m calling Geometry of the Heart.  Here, the ball park, a Little League sort of field, represents the heart of the neighborhood, the openness of the field stands in direct contrast with the cramped houses.  This is a painting that I have really enjoyed painting, one that is probably more for myself than for anyone else but one that I needed to paint.

malcah-zeldis-homage-to-hank-greenberg

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I was going through a pile of old work, mostly rougher  stuff from when I first started painting that had small glimpses of promise but lacked real spark or cohesiveness in the way they came together, when I came across this piece from 1994.  It’s about 12″ by 16″ on rough Arches watercolor paper and has the words Bradford County written in pencil at the  bottom corner of the paper. 

It’s a piece that I always found attractive but seeing it really brought me to a stop.  I so recognized that time when it was painted and could now see several potential directions where my work might have headed other than the one it eventually followed. 

This piece was very much in a more traditional watercolor style, with no treatment of the paper and the colors pure.  The colors had not yet come around to the palette that I later adopted.  For instance, the sky is a single uncomplicated shade of blue.  There are no other colors, not even other blues in it.  I had yet to make the move to more complex colors even though there is a hint of it in the foreground and the hills.

It also is a depiction of a real place, as denoted by the Bradford County.  Growing up, we lived on Wilawana Road just a few short miles from the NY/PA border and if you followed the road into PA you found yourself in Bradford County.  That part of the border is at the base of steep hills and is filled with rural valleys that I spent many hours exploring.  This scene was purely based on that place even though it is not any one location there.  I had not yet made the leap into creating my own landscape, forming the felt space rather than real space of Ralph Fasanella that I had mentioned in an earlier post.

To me, this is a time capsule that takes me back to the time when I painted it.  It suggests potentials that seem a million miles away from where I finally landed at the present.  It shows the possibility of staying strictly as a traditonal watercolorist or painting solely as painter of reality.  A depicter of the what is with the proper colors and forms.  I wonder how my work might look today, how it might differ,  if I had followed any of those other possible routes for the work? 

 I suppose many of us can look back at certain points in our lives and see times much like the one captured for me in this simple painting, times when we are at a junction in our lives and must decide which path to follow.  I’m sure some of us would look at such a time with a certain level of regret but for me, I am happy with my decisions made at and after the point of this painting so for me this is a warm memory, a reminder of the path I was about to follow.

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I came into the studio this morning and immediately sat down to read my emails.  Among them was the most recent post from American Folk 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 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…”

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A last word or two on the Maine mural controversy that I wrote of in  a couple of posts here.  I came across an interesting project from guerilla artists who went to the Maine state capital building and projected a large image of the mural on it,  re-installing the mural in effect.  Like the mural itself, it was symbolic, which is the purpose of art.  The anonymous statement for their project was simply put  but effective:

We put this video up to remind our peers that you have a voice, as soon as you choose to use it. If your government takes a symbol away and tries to hide history, you can make the truth resonate a thousand times stronger with your own 2 hands.

This is a lesson the labor unions taught us all, though some have chosen to forget it. We will remind you.

The maker of the art is unimportant. What matters is that you see it, and you have the freedom to speak about it.

I was also contacted by an AP reporter, Glenn Adams, who had somehow stumbled across this blog while researching an article on the widespread response across the nation to the mural controversy.  We talked for a while about why I had responded to the removal of the mural  and the symbolism to the whole thing.  He told me he planned on using a quote from  my blogpost as a sort of summing up.  The article came out yesterday afternoon and mentions the Detroit Institute of Arts’ Diego Rivera mural as well as an incident concerning Ralph Fasanella, who I have also mentioned here in the past.  One of Fasanella’s paintings had to do with a famous strike at one of the mills in Lawrence, Massachusetts in the early part of the 20th century and had hung for years in a hearing room of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Labor and Education.  It was removed in 1994 after the Republican’s took control of congress.  So this is certainly not the first time nor will it be the last time that politicians try to alter the symbology of our history.

Here’s the video of the Maine mural being projected:

 

 

 

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