During his career as a painter, Ralph Fasanella (1914-1997) was fascinated by the struggle the working class endured both before his time and during his life.
For three years in the 1970s, Fasanella lived in Lawrence while he transformed huge canvases into colorful scenes of the city’s industrial past.
Now for the first time, eight of these works have been gathered from around the East Coast for the special exhibition, “Fasanella’s Lawrence,” which is on display at Lawrence Heritage State Park Gallery through Dec. 16.
The paintings are some of the most significant in the history of the American labor movement. In vibrant hues, with the deep red of the brick factory buildings often dominating the canvases, Fasanella’s paintings tell the story of Lawrence’s workers in the early 20th century, in particular during the 1912 Bread and Roses strike. The event, which was instigated by the city’s textile factory laborers after unjust wage reductions, is described by the Massachusetts AFL-CIO as “one of the most prolific strikes in United States history.”
Fasanella’s Lawrence includes three paintings about this important strike, including the 5-foot-by-10-foot canvas titled “Lawrence, 1912 — The Bread and Roses Strike.” This work, which is owned by the State Park, shows the strikers in action.
A second painting that captures this moment in time is “The Great Strike — IWW Textile Strike,” which not only shows the workers protesting the unjust wage cuts, but also pays tribute to the print media and local library where Fasanella studied the history of the event, according to exhibition curator Nancy Nesvet.
Apart from the paintings that capture the Bread and Roses Strike, the works featured in Fasanella’s Lawrence depict ordinary scenes from the city’s days of industrialization, with its mill buildings and workers at the forefront.
As Nesvet explains, the theme of urban working life was close to Fasanella’s heart and part of his own upbringing as the child of two working-class Italian immigrants in New York City. Like the people in his Lawrence paintings, Fasanella’s mother was a textile worker who became involved in organizing labor unions. His father, meanwhile, spent his days as an ice deliveryman, with a young Ralph Fasanella sometimes in tow, witnessing firsthand the difficulties of such work.
“Family discussions often centered on the IWW [Industrial Workers of the World Union] and socialist philosophy of providing for all by guaranteeing a decent living wage and decent working conditions,” Nesvet explains.
And although the events of Fasanella’s own life and his paintings may seem like a thing of the past, Nesvet insists that the themes continue to be relevant today.“Fasanella’s work speaks to the conflicts between the laborer and management classes, and the economic disparities that are so prevalent in the U.S. and around the world,” she says, citing the famous Occupy rallies and European austerity strikes as evidence that our world today isn’t so fundamentally different than it was a century ago.
Nesvet adds, “Fasanella’s depiction of people coming together from many disparate cultures and ethnicities for one purpose – human dignity and decent wages and hours – is similar to what is happening worldwide at this moment.”
Perhaps this link between our recent struggles and the content of Fasanella’s work is the reason behind a revival of sorts that is currently taking place. Earlier this year, Fasanella was the subject of a solo exhibit at New York’s Andrew Edlin gallery, and in 2014, a new show of his paintings titled “Ralph Fasanella: Lest We Forget” will be hosted by the Smithsonian Museum of American Art in Washington, D.C., before moving on to New York’s American Folk Art Museum. But for now, people in the Boston area can experience the artist’s local legacy and some of his most important work for free with a visit to Fasanella’s Lawrence.
For more information, visit www.fasanellaslawrence.org.