Remembering artist Ralph Fasanella
Sometimes a community needs an outsider to help it remember its history. When artist Ralph Fasanella came to Lawrence in the 1970s, the now-famous 1912 Lawrence Textile Strike, also known as the Bread and Roses Strike, was a repressed memory. According to Jim Beauchesne, visitor services supervisor at Lawrence Heritage State Park, the city’s “official story” considered the strike “a shameful episode in history, with outside agitators stirring up immigrant workers.” Workers were not yet protected by the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, and the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW) were viewed, Beauchesne says, as “beyond the pale of American society” when they protested the wage cuts that caused the workers to strike.
“Ralph Fasanella was a gregarious, salt-of-the-earth kind of guy,” Beauchesne says. “Born of Italian immigrant parents, he was a working-class labor activist, and as an urban artist, [he] spent three years in Lawrence. Fasanella walked the mill district, lived in the YMCA and talked to people.” He sketched mills in Lawrence and millworkers and mill machinery in Lowell, and later completed 18 large paintings that celebrated Lawrence’s industrial history. The paintings aren’t a historical record as much as a reimagining of what life in Lawrence might have been like for the community: mill workers, police officers and factory owners. With vivid colors and a touch of “magical realism,” Fasanella brought mill-era Lawrence to life.
In 1987, Lawrence Heritage State Park hosted a Fasanella exhibition to celebrate the 75th anniversary of the strike. Last year, The Friends of Lawrence Heritage State Park raised significant funds to launch a major exhibition, “Fasanella’s Lawrence,” which ran from Oct. 12 through Dec. 16 at Lawrence Heritage State Park. Nancy Nesvet, curator of “Fasanella’s Lawrence,” says, “[Fasanella’s] paintings provide a visual history that is accessible for people fluent in any of the many languages represented in the Merrimack Valley. These paintings instill a pride in the history of immigrants to America for present-day immigrants.”
Although “Fasanella’s Lawrence” closed in December, “Lawrence 1912: the Bread and Roses Strike” is on permanent display at Lawrence Heritage State Park. Visitors can watch videos about Fasanella and purchase copies of the “Fasanella’s Lawrence” catalog.
Fourteen UMass Lowell honor students got to know Fasanella’s work in-depth as part of a service-learning course called “Create it! The Fasanella Exhibit.” Despite their disparate majors (computer science, biomed, criminal justice, psychology and others), the students researched the artist, his paintings and the impact of his efforts. They worked on the “Fasanella’s Lawrence” exhibition from start to finish, says lecturer Jennifer Cadero-Gillette, who led the class along with Nancy Nesvet. “Each person brought their talents to bear on various projects.”
Some students helped with the catalog, banner and promotion. Others translated the catalog, gallery information and painting labels into Spanish. Part of the team filmed the entire process, including packing up one painting and interviewing workers at the AFL-CIO headquarters in Washington, D.C.
“This project was both hands-on and academic,” Cadero-Gillette explains. “This process has been life-changing for some students, especially to present something to the local community that is meaningful not just on campus, but in a much larger sense, where you have large populations who worked and work in factory settings.”
Ralph Fasanella died in 1997 at the age of 83, but his connection to the Merrimack Valley remains alive through his paintings of a momentous slice of Lawrence history.