By Sean Darling '16
UMass Lowell has never shied away from getting involved with the community. Students are provided with countless opportunities to volunteer and work with a myriad of public projects. This semester UMass Lowell students from the honors service-learning course: Create It! The Fasanella Exhibit, taught by Jennifer Cadero-Gillette from the Department of Cultural Studies, contributed to the Ralph Fasanella exhibit at the Lawrence Heritage State Park Museum. After researching Fasanella’s life and works, the students worked alongside the Lawrence Heritage Museum to create a gallery in his honor.
Born in New York to a family of Italian immigrants, Fasanella worked from a very young age, delivering ice with his father, and dropped out of school after only sixth grade. His mother was a social rights activist involved in several labor unions, and his father was a man whom worked nearly every day of his life. Despite the fact that both of his parents worked hard, they were still always struggling to make ends meet, which as he grew older inspired Fasanella to fight for the establishment of unions. At 60 years old, Fasanella developed severe arthritis and experienced difficulty when performing daily tasks. To help, a friend suggested that he try painting to help relieve some of his symptoms. So, Fasanella began to paint, and not long after, quit his job to paint full time. As many other artists, Fasanella painted what he knew.
With up to a dozen works of art, the gallery may seem small at first, but the paintings quickly speak for themselves, a handful of canvases measuring out to roughly five by ten fen feet long. A few, smaller pieces focus on the different landscapes of mill cities, such as the Merrimack at night, but the majority of works capture not only a day in time, but entire public scenes of labor history and strikes, most prominently the Bread and Roses Strike in Lawrence. While at first, the paintings may seem to be simple, a second look will uncover astute attention to detail and local history. Each portrait is filled with so much detail, life and information that after ten minutes of surveying a piece, you’ll find something new. This is a once in a lifetime exhibit, filled with unusual artwork, local history, and intrigue.
The “Create it!” course is a collaborative class that brought together students from a variety of disciplines including Theatre Arts, Criminal Justice, Psychology, Sound Recording Technology, Plastics Engineering, and more. These students wrote descriptions for each of Fasanella’s paintings, and helped create the exhibits catalogue. At the opening reception, students and faculty received congressional recognition for their work from U.S. Rep. Niki Tsongas.
“This was an incredible way for me to gain experience outside of the classroom and expand my knowledge into other fields which I may not have ventured into otherwise,” says student Alex Nevers. “Giving students the power and ability to create their own, real-world project is intensely difficult, but the payoff of seeing the exhibit fully put together was more than satisfying.”
For the exhibit our UMass Lowell students served as docents to explain the historical contexts of Fasanella’s paintings to visitors. Students also participated in a film night, showing several documentaries about Ralph Fasanella and his work, and are completing their own documentary of the course, so they can share the experience with others.
These paintings are filled to the brim with local history and personality, and now you can go and see them for yourself. Not only do they successfully portray the sense of community that accompanies life in a mill city, but they are being shown where they belong.
Fasanella himself said, “I didn’t paint my paintings to hang in some rich guy’s living room.” The paintings are hanging where Fasanella would want them to, in a public building, free for all to see. All proceeds from the catalogue that students helped create are being donated to the Lawrence Heritage State Park. More info at: http://lawrenceheritage.org/events