EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

October 6, 2013

The art of onlooking

By Yadira Betances
ybetances@eagletribune.com

---- — LAWRENCE — For two years in the 1970s, Ralph Fasanella rented a room at the local YMCA for $18 a week where he got a closeup view of the city’s residents, neighborhoods, landmarks and mills.

The result were 18 oil on canvas paintings in bright reds, yellows, deep greens, turquoise, and pink depicting what it was like at the height of the city’s mill era.

Beginning Friday, Oct. 11, seven of his original paintings and related photographs and drawings of mills, workers and machinery will go on exhibit at the Lawrence Heritage State Park through Dec. 13.

“Too many artists depict the upperclass because they are the ones who can afford it. The mill workers Fasanella paints are like you and me. Through his work, he spoke so well of the people he painted,” said curator Nancy Nesvet.

She said Fasanella went one step further.

“He used his art to advertise the situation of people who needed the publicity. He educated us about working people in America,” Nesvet said.

Lawrence is the second stop of a national tour which includes the Smithsonian Institution in Washington,

On display are the paintings “Paper Mill,” “Garden Street,” 1976 “Lawrence 1912, The Bread and Roses Strike,” “Mill Workers, Lower Pacific Mill, Working at the Mill” and “Meeting at the Commons,” all painted in 1977; “Working the Night Shift number 2,” “Red Sky” and “The Great Strike,” all created in 1978.

Nesvet is most delighted about having “Lawrence 1912: The Great Strike” (also titled “Bread and Roses - Lawrence, 1912”) on display. Fifteen labor unions and the AFL-CIO bought the 5-foot by 10-foot painting. It was loaned to the United States Congress, and was on display Rayburn Office Building in the hearing room of the House Subcommittee on Labor and Education until 1994 elections. The painting now hangs at the Labor Museum and Learning Center in Flint, Mich.

Since some of the Lawrence mills had closed or moved south when Fasanella came to the city, he went to Lowell to see the looms of the textile mills still in operation there and incorporated them into his paintings of Lawrence.

This is the first time in 26 years that Fasanella’s paintings have been on display in Lawrence. There was an exhibit in 1987 to mark the 75th anniversary of the Bread and Roses strike. The paintings along with Fasanella returned in 1988 for a display at Lawrence Public Library.

“He allowed people to look at our history with pride,” said Jim Beauchesne, gallery director at Lawrence Heritage State Park.

He said before Fasanella’s paintings of Lawrence were in the spotlight, people were ashamed of the city’s industrial history.

“Some saw it as a failure for the mill owners that the workers won. It was a symbol of failure because the city saw a decline when the rest of the country was prospering.

“He brought the story of Lawrence to the world at large and the exhibit is another way to learn about history,” Beauchesne said. “He is not only a great artist, but helped revive an interest in the strike and the struggle of workers.”

Nesvet said having Fasanella’s painting in Lawrence “Is our tribute to him for what he did for the city,”

Fasanella was born in the Bronx, N.Y. coincidentally on Labor Day, 1914. His mother drilled holes into buttons at a dress shop and his father delivered ice from a horse-driven wagon to local homes and the future artist often went with him. He was a self-taught artist.

“Coming from New York City, I can see the similarities between Lawrence and New York,” Nesvet said.

“When Ralph moved to Lawrence, it led him back to his urban beginnings. It was like home to him,” she said.

Nesvet said the exhibit cost between $25,000 to $30,000 because some paintings were loaned from the Fasanella’s Estate, AFL-CIO in Washington, and the collection of the University of Southern Maine in Lewiston.

“Fasanella Tiger Team,” 12 students at University of Massachusetts, Lowell are learning about the artist in Jim Canning and Jennifer Cadero-Gillette.

“He let everyone know the diversity of Americans and the contributions of immigrants,” said art history professor Cadero-Gillette.

“What works about his paintings is that it appeals to everybody,” Cadero-Gilette said. “There is a tension in his paintings between simple and complex. It’s so personal, but they also speak about one theme, the workers.”

Munish Gandevia, a junior at University of Massachusetts had never heard of Fasanella until now.

“He sheds light on the working class in a way that is accessible,” Gandevia said. “He painted as he saw it. He showed that anyone can create a portrait or an image, but it doesn’t require special skills when it comes from the heart.”

Fasanella died in December 1997. He was 83.

If you go What: An exhibit of paintings by Ralph Fasanella depicting Lawrence mills, the Bread and Roses Strike and working drawings of mill machinery in Lowell. When:Text ColorSwatch/NoneStrokeStyle/$ID/SolidText ColorSwatch/NoneStrokeStyle/$ID/Solid$ID/NothingText ColorText Color$ID/NothingText ColorText Color Oct. 11 through Dec. 16. Opening reception is Oct. 12, 5 to 7 p.m. featuring jazz music by the Mike Jacob Quartet and appetizers from Cafe Azteca. Where: Lawrence Heritage State Park, 1 Jackson St. Other events include a panel discussion, "Fasanella in Lawrence, Then & Now," Nov. 2, 1 to 4 p.m., featuring the artist's son, Marc Fasanella, Professor of Public Art, at State University of New York at Stony Brook; Paul D'Ambrosio, Chief Curator, Fenimore Museum; Ron Carver, founder and director of nonprofit "Public Domain"; Jim Beauchesne, gallery director, Lawrence Heritage State Park. All events are free and opened to the public. Film discussion from 4 to 6 p.m., followed by the showing of film about Fasanella from 6 to 8 p.m. including, "Ralph Fasanella's America," 2013; "Ralph Fasanella: Song of the City," 1980 and "Fasanella," 1992.