Book Review: Ralph Fasanella, Artist of the People

February 25, 2024

Anne Broyles, I’m Gonna Paint! Ralph Fasanella, Artist of the People. Illustrated by Victoria Tentler-Krylov. New York: Holiday House, 2023. 48pp.

This new children’s picture book about the life and art of Lincoln Veteran Ralph Fasanella is a timely new work. Given how accessible Fasanella’s work is to viewers of all ages, and how popular his paintings were with NYC public school art educators, where they were widely used in Programs such as Learning to Read through the Arts, it is only natural that his work should now be offered to the wider public.

It is encouraging to see the biographies from which young readers can draw inspiration expanded to include someone who connected his own life and art to the struggles for immigrant rights, social justice, labor rights and anti-fascism.

I’m Gonna Paint begins with Ralph’s tenement life in New York City during the 1920s. It introduces us to a world of shared hallway toilets where the only apartment light came from coin operated gas globes, and one where children engaged in the dangerous past time of jumping across tenement rooftops for recreation. Because picture books use few words, Victoria Krylov’s illustrations play an important role. Her paintings fill out the details and texture of Fasanella’s life. In a lower-East-Side street scene, Krylov shows the crowded pushcarts and wares and the signs in a cacophony of immigrant languages. Fasanella’s father worked as an iceman, a difficult job that is now obsolete, which also happens to be the subject of one of Fasanella’s most widely known paintings. Krylov’s illustrations show the hard work and succession of steps involved in the job.

Indeed, one of the virtues of the book is that it allows children, who may live in just as humble circumstances as Fasanella did then, to see that they, too, can express themselves through art. On a page about Ralph’s beginnings as an artist, Krylov’s drawings demystify his artistic process, showing him priming and stretching the canvas, mixing his palette, and executing the steps that lead him to present his finished work to a prospective dealer.

Another outstanding page shows Ralph heading up the steps of what looks like the Metropolitan Museum of Art holding a large artist’s portfolio. In a perfect match of text to illustration, Broyles writes, “As an adult, he taught himself to paint. He visited museums to study works by famous artists.” This page honors Fasanella’s own vision of himself as an artist learning from the works of others. It also explains why he disliked the term “primitive,” with which his work was often labeled.

The book contains more than the narrative of Fasanella’s life. Each dynamic page in this book places Fasanella, the artist, in the midst of the turbulent events he is recording through his paintings. The story is peppered throughout with inspirational quotes from Fasanella. “I never did a painting for myself,” he said. “I was always trying to uplift other people, to show them who they are and where they came from…my job is not only to record American history, but to record the feelings of American workers as honestly as possible.”

Worth noting are the supportive materials that the author and press have included in this volume. The quote above appears in a section of the book called “More About Ralph.” The book also includes two-page spreads of his most iconic murals such as “The Bread and Roses Strike” and “Dress Shop: In Memory of the Triangle Shirtwaist Workers,” along with reproductions of other works.

A “Timeline of Ralph Fasanella’s Life” includes the entry “1937—Ralph Joins the Abraham Lincoln Brigade and travels to Europe to fight fascism in the Spanish Civil War.” A section “For Further Reading” sends children, their parents, and teachers to explore the work of other “socially conscious twentieth century artists whose work focused on the lives of working people.” Alongside the painters Ben Shahn or Jacob Lawrence, it includes artists who worked in other media like photography and film, such as Dorothea Lange and Gordon Parks.

I’m Gonna Paint introduces children to an artist with a unique vision and approach to his work. Fasanella expanded the subject matter of visual art to include scenes such as workers in their factories and union halls, immigrant neighborhoods, and people demonstrating for a better life. This book deserves to become a widely used resource in school libraries and classrooms.

ALBA Board Member Nancy Wallach, a retired art educator, is the daughter of VALB Hy Wallach. She has been awarded many honors in the field including NYCATA/UFT Art Educator of the Year and the NYC Schools and Culture Award.