“Know your roots. Remember who you are.”– Ralph Fasanella

The New-York Historical Society, in association with the New York State Historical Association, has announced a major retrospective on the life and work of folk artist and labor activist Ralph Fasanella.

A second-generation Italian-American, Fasanella painted what he knew: New York’s garment industry, its diverse make-up, trade unionism and grassroots American politics. Fasanella captured the struggles and triumphs of working people in large, colorful and detailed paintings.

Culled from several different collections, the exhibit includes 50 of the artist’s greatest works from the 1940s through the 1990s.

Fasanella was a self-taught artist who created a stunning and diverse body of work depicting labor history, American politics and urban working-class life. His works bear a direct relationship to the culture of the streets, tenements and sweatshops.

Fasanella was born to Italian immigrants in New York City. His father was an ice deliveryman and his mother worked in the garment industry.

The most formative influences on Fasanella’s life were his parents: his father introduced him to the physical rigors of working-class life, while his socially-conscious mother taught him about working-class struggle and the value of self-education.

Fasanella’s political beliefs were radicalized by the Great Depression and he became active in antifascist and trade unionist causes. His antifascist zeal lead him to volunteer for duty in the International Brigades fighting fascism in Spain, where he served from 1937 to 1938. Upon his return to New York City, Fasanella became an organizer for various unions.

In 1944, Fasanella started to draw. He left organizing and began to paint full time.

In 1950 he married Eva Lazorek, a schoolteacher who supported the couple through more than two decades of artistic obscurity and blacklisting by the FBI. In 1972 Fasanella was featured in New York magazine and in an illustrated coffee-table book, Fasanella’s City.

His large-scale, intricate paintings of urban life and American politics were then introduced to art critics and the public.

In the late 1970s, Fasanella spent two years in Lawrence, Mass., researching the 1912 Bread and Roses strike. The result was a series of 18 paintings depicting the life of the mill town’s immigrant populations and the events of the strike.

The Lawrence series represents one of the largest and most significant bodies of historical painting by any American self-taught artist. In the 1980s and 1990s, Fasanella largely painted scenes that refined familiar subjects, such as urban neighborhoods, baseball and labor strikes. He died Dec. 16, 1997.

His work can also be viewed on-line at www.bread-and-roses.com/rfasanella.html.