News

Art By, For and About the Common Man

Ron Carver tells the story of a critical juncture when CWA lent invaluable help in the efforts to reclaim the paintings of Ralph Fasanella for display in the public domain.

Ron Carver tells the story of a critical juncture when CWA lent invaluable help in the efforts to reclaim the paintings of Ralph Fasanella for display in the public domain.

The result of those efforts can be seen in Ralph Fasanella: Lest We Forget at the Smithsonian's American Art Museum at 8th and F Streets, N.W. in Washington, DC, which is open through August 3. The exhibition will then travel to the American Folk Art Museum in New York City from September 2, 2014 to November 30, 2014 where it will be on view to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Fasanella's Labor Day birthday.

"I didn't paint my paintings to hang in some rich guy's living room," the artist had famously said.

Cohen suggested that a video that could be shown in classrooms and other venues would help raise funds. The Beirne Foundation, established to honor CWA's first president, helped fund the film, produced by the Academy Award-nominated filmmaker Glen Pearcy. The 23-minute documentary, Fasanella, is an award-winning film that is still in wide circulation today.

Cohen said it is important that Fasanella's work be seen.

"We took on Fasanella," he said, "to connect his art to students – high school students – and that because so much of his art also told a story of working people, that through his paintings we could not only connect to that world, the art world, but also tell the story of labor."

Born in the Bronx in 1914, Ralph Fasanella celebrated the lives and struggles of working-class people in paintings of textile mills, dress shops, union halls, and stickball games.

He was also a labor organizer for several unions, starting with the United Electrical Workers union (UE), later with longshoremen, hospital workers, janitors, and teamsters.

CWA eventually commissioned Fasanella to paint CWA Union Hall, which is now temporarily loaned for a display at the AFL-CIO Washington, DC, headquarters.

Leslie Umberger, Smithsonian's curator of folk and self-taught art who curated the exhibition on Fasanella, said the artist, who died in 1998, devoted his whole life to the labor movement and the common man.

"He believed that the workers of the United States were the driving force and that that was something to be recognized and honored, that that was something that was dignified and noble. He was very much of that culture and also knew that when you don't have the money and the power in the United States, you find other ways of making sure that you fight for your rights. To him, a big part of that is unity and strength in numbers," Umberger said.

04_Fasanella's_Family_Supper

Ralph Fasanella's 1972 painting Family Supper, which CWA played a significant role in securing so it could be displayed to the public at the National Park Service's Great Hall at Ellis Island, is a part of the exhibit.