The public is invited to take a closer look at a special collection of prints by the artist Ralph Fasanella during an exhibition on view Aug. 20 through Sept. 2 at the Allegany Art Council’s Saville Gallery, 52 Baltimore Street. The prints, on loan from the George A. Meyers Collection at Frostburg State University’s Lewis J. Ort Library, highlight glimpses of urban, working-class life in America captured by Fasanella, whom John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, once declared was "a true artist of the people in the tradition of Paul Robeson and Woody Guthrie." The exhibition opens with a free reception Tuesday, Aug. 21, from 3 to 5 p.m. at the gallery.
“Ralph Fasanella was one of the country’s leading primitive artists,” said Dr. David Gillespie, FSU’s library director. “We are most fortunate to have several autographed prints.”
Fasanella was born to Italian immigrants in the Bronx, New York, on Labor Day in 1914. He spent much of his youth delivering ice with his father from a horse-driven wagon, a man whom he saw as a representative of all working people, beaten down day after day and struggling for survival. Fasanella later said that the compositional density of his pictures was influenced by the experience of helping his father deliver ice, which involved removing all the food from customers' refrigerators and arranging it in neatly ordered stacks.
In the mid-1940s, Fasanella began to suffer from intense finger pain caused by arthritis. A union co-worker suggested that he take up painting as a way to exercise his fingers and ease the pain. Fasanella became consumed by art and left labor union organizing to paint full time. To pay the bills, he pumped gasoline at a service station.
Fasanella's painting focused on city life, men and women at work, union meetings, strikes, sit-ins and baseball games. He quickly developed a quasi-surrealist style that spoke to workers and the poor through the use of familiar details, depicting interiors and exteriors or past and future simultaneously. He painted canvases as big as 10 feet across because he envisioned his paintings hanging in large union meeting halls.
Fasanella's opinionated, leftist-oriented artwork caused him to be blacklisted among art dealers and galleries during the McCarthy era, and his work remained largely unknown for nearly 30 years. Then a self-proclaimed folk-art dealer "discovered" Fasanella in 1972, and his work appeared on the cover of “New York” magazine later that year. The cover depicted him wearing a work shirt and standing in his tiny studio. Accompanying the photo was the headline, "This man pumps gas in the Bronx for a living. He may also be the best primitive painter since Grandma Moses."
Ultimately, the “New York” magazine cover catapulted Fasanella to national fame. A large number of exhibits featuring his work traveled the United States, building respect for folk, urban and working-class art and encouraging the emerging field of labor culture studies.
For more information about the Ralph Fasanella print exhibition, contact the Saville Gallery at (301) 777-ARTS (2787). To learn more about FSU’s collection of Fasanella’s prints, contact Dr. Gillespie at (301) 687-4396.
Situated in the mountains of Allegany County, Frostburg State University is one of the 13 institutions of the University System of Maryland. FSU is a comprehensive, residential regional university and serves as an educational and cultural center for Western Maryland.
For more information about FSU, contact the Office of Admissions at (301) 687-4201 or visit the University’s Web site at www.frostburg.edu.