Painting Ordinary Lives. Blue-collar artist Ralph Fasanella paints a world in which a sense of community matters
DOBBS FERRY, N.Y. — THE people at the galleries had some business advice: Don't make prints. ``They said the less there is of something, the more valuable it is,'' recalls Eve Fasanella, the artist's wife.
But Ralph Fasanella isn't some oil company. He's a guy who used to work in a clothing factory. For the last 40 years, he's been sweating out his visions of city streets and factories and of an America in which generosity and fellow feeling are often overshadowed by acquisitiveness and greed.
Keep his paintings scarce? So he could make more money?
Sure, a guy's gotta sell his paintings. But this whole idea of art being squirreled away in private collections may be okay for the stuff they sell at the trendy SoHo galleries, like the one a New York Times art critic described recently - without irony - as ``an installation involving two crisscrossing volleyball nets'' and ``a large white ball that emits strange sounds.''
But how are you going to connect with people, show them their lives, if all your work is stuck in high-rise apartments where maybe 20 well-to-do people see it in a year? ``What's it doing in there for?'' Ralph asks.
Fasanella's admirers feel the same way. ``It would be outrageous for us in the labor movement to allow `Bread and Roses' to disappear into a private collection,'' says Ron Carver, a union organizer from New Bedford, Mass., speaking of Fasanella's painting of the Lawrence, Mass., textile strike of 1912. So Mr. Carver has started a project sort of like the old WPA, called Public Domain, to purchase Fasanella's paintings for public buildings.
Already he's succeeded in Lawrence, Mass., and New Bedford. Efforts are well under way in Oakland, Calif., and Flint, Mich., among other cities, too. Carver's also aiming to buy one of Fasanella's baseball paintings for the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, N.Y. Fasanella has a message for people who don't frequent the galleries, Carver says. He shows them that ``their lives are important enough to paint.''
Ralph Fasanella grew up in New York's West Village, when it was still a tough ethnic neighborhood. His mother worked in clothing factories. His father delivered ice. Ralph did a couple of stretches in a Roman Catholic reform school, followed his mother into the factories, volunteered with the Loyalists in the Spanish Civil War. He became a union organizer - at $5 a week, when they paid.
``The reason I know the sidewalks is that I walked all those blocks,'' Fasanella recalled in a recent interview. ``You couldn't take a train every five minutes.''
To Fasanella the union wasn't just a way to get more pay. It should feed the spirit, bring a measure of humanity to a mercantile culture. John L. Lewis, the mineworkers' leader, is in his personal pantheon, along with Franklin Roosevelt and Martin Luther King Jr.
But in the '40s, and especially after the war, the ``fat cats,'' as he called them, were taking over the movement. Material betterment was all they cared about.
Around that time, Ralph's fingers began to hurt. He thought it was arthritis. Then a friend suggested he try painting. He quit the union and went to work at his brother's garage in the Bronx, pumping gas during the day, painting at his West Village apartment at night. He was teaching himself, solving problems as he came to them.
Some paintings he has worked on for 20 years. Before he did ``Bread and Roses,'' he spent three years in Lawrence, walking the streets, hanging around coffee shops, reading voraciously on labor history.
``I saw the bricks. I saw the buildings. I saw the workers. I felt at home,'' he recalls. ``My family worked in clothing. It's an identity and a smell that you never lose.''
SOPHISTICATES might be tempted to dismiss Fasanella's work. There is a primitive, childlike quality that seems to come straight from the imagination, with few intervening filters of technique. But his paintings are subtle and densely detailed.
``You have to keep looking at them,'' says Frank Sousa, a machinists' union representative in Oakland, who is instrumental in the Public Domain effort there. ``The more you look at them, the more you get out of them.''
It is a world, not of nature, but of human affinities - families, churches, union halls, ballparks. It is a sacred world. In ``Family Supper,'' the dinner table is set in a kind of altar, framed by depictions of the tenements and street life outside, almost in the manner of medieval tableaux.
Ballparks and street scenes have a shrine-like quality, sometimes backlit by a reddish glow, like a stained glass window. But churches themselves can loom dark and almost funereal, like the buildings in his painting named ``Wall Street.'' There are no people, just a lone cop. It is a city of darkness, in contrast to his neighborhoods, which are almost pastoral.
Fasanella is a smallish, restless man with a stubble of beard and sad, mischievous eyes. He speaks in a gruff staccato, referring to ``guys'' like Picasso and Van Gogh with the same Sullivan Street inflections he might use in recalling Gehrig or DiMaggio, the Yankee greats.
One almost expects to see a panel truck in the driveway with ``Fasanella & Son'' painted on the side.
His are people whose opportunities never matched their intelligence. In ``Family Supper,'' his father appears on a cross, his ice tongs a crown of thorns. ``In memory of my father Joe,'' the inscription reads. ``The poor [guy] died broke.''
Fasanella doesn't paint scenes as much as visions. In ``American Tragedy,'' the Dallas of John Kennedy's assassination becomes a kind of garish theme park. Office buildings become oil derricks and missile launchers. A yahoo politician with a pistol and a Klansman's hood rides a black horse over Kennedy's coffin.
But Fasanella has little use for ideology. He was skeptical about the Russian Revolution because he saw the country becoming a big corporate bureaucracy. (``Gorky didn't write anymore,'' he says.) He thinks money lust in America has the same effect as power lust in the Soviet Union, burying fellow feeling and the capacity to respond honestly to life.
A very early work, ``Sheridan Square,'' conveys simply the loneliness of a New York City subway entrance late at night. ``Red Sky'' is a textile mill at a similar hour, politics as silent as the looms inside.
Fasanella has devoted followers in the art world. He's been the subject of a book, ``Fasanella's City,'' as well as innumerable articles in newspapers and magazines. But Fasanella's working-class sensibilities are jarring to many art buyers.
Eve, the more analytic of the two, observes that ``if you put a social painting in a house with fancy furniture and rugs, it's a contradiction.''
Ralph puts it more pungently. ``They smelled the pastrami and garlic and salami, and said, `This guy we don't want,''' he says. ``Once you begin to pour your guts into a painting, and they see your guts, they don't want it.''
So, against the advice of the art dealers, the Fasanellas have made prints that sell for $10 apiece. (``We try to stick a 10-note on them no matter where we go,'' Ralph says.)
Their main focus at present is Public Domain, which began as an effort to buy ``Bread and Roses'' for the textile museum in Lawrence. Carver hopes to have 10 to 12 paintings in public places before he's done. ``He desperately wants his work to be accessible,'' Carver says.
THE Fasanellas live in a comfortable house in Dobbs Ferry, N.Y. They built it back before real estate went crazy, so Ralph would have room to work. One day last fall, the studio was tidy, without the smell of paint. Ralph has always gone through dry spells. He's spending a lot of time at the local library - a ``reading renaissance,'' he calls it.
There's a nice wooded view, and Ralph has even done some nature paintings. But as Ralph says, ``I'm a city guy.'' He'll go to a local cafeteria, even sit on a bench outside the supermarket, just for human contact.
Back in the Depression, ``you sat down, and you played Chinese checkers, and you talked all night,'' he recalls. ``Going through struggle, you find people have a feel for each other.''
But today's suburbanite has his own living room, his own TV. ``He doesn't need a next-door neighbor. For all the things he has, he is the most alienated, lonesome man in the world. There is more loneliness today than there has ever been. And I am one of them, by the way.''