Examining the Art of Class, Race, and Gender: Museum-School Style

Last week, our CRG class session was one that reminded me why I chose to go to school for museum studies. Our class was led by Paul D’Ambrosio, President and CEO of the Fenimore Art Museum and The Farmers’ Museum. Class began with a lecture in the Study Center (surrounded by pieces of the renowned Thaw Collection), where we learned about two folk artists; Ralph Fasanella and Malcah Zeldis.

We learned that Ralph Fasanella’s work depicted issues of the working class in the city, labor history, and the influence of major institutions (such as the Catholic church), on community life. Fasanella was a self-taught painter and the son of Italian immigrants. His mother was particularly active in anti-fascism and trade unions. He worked as a union organizer until he began to paint as a way to soothe his fingers from stress-induced pain.

His style quickly developed into a recognizable form. Fasanella produced large, colorful, complicated, and surreal pieces such as “The Great Strike”, which depicts a textile workers strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts.


The Great Strike, Wikimedia Commons.



Next, we hard about Jewish-American folk artist, Malcah Zeldis, who painted subjects such as celebrations, everyday events, religious rituals, and her personal heroes and celebrities. She painted in a flat style, with vibrant, almost neon colors.


Peaceable Kingdom, Wikimedia Commons.

Now, up until this point, a folk art lecture at any other school would have gone much like the above description. But since we were already at The Fenimore Art Museum, we took a short walk upstairs to the galleries and art storage areas to actually see the artworks we just glimpsed in the slide presentation.

We could get as close to them as we wanted,  look at the back of the frames, examine the brush strokes, and ask as many questions of Paul D’Ambrosio (resident Fasanella expert) as we desired. Being able to stand right in front of the artwork proved to reveal more intricacies that I did not notice in the slide image. The colors and textures were true to the artist’s brush, and the paintings evoked a mood that you just can’t get from a book.

There really is nothing like seeing a piece of art in person. That feeling is exactly why I chose to go to school for museum studies.

3 thoughts on “Examining the Art of Class, Race, and Gender: Museum-School Style

  1. It was interesting to me to consider how art might fit in to the social movement of White Ethnic Revival, albeit very tangentially. It is always a little distressing to think that a person’s art might be misappropriated to represent one thing when it’s really about another, especially in Fasanella’s case.

    1. Keith, I thought that was a really interesting point that came up in class. So much of his work was an expression of his political beliefs, and at least to me seems to have been his goal. Then to have people buying his art for a completely different political motivation does seem odd. I think buying the art because you like it, or it appeals to your aesthetic is different, but searching an artist out because of their ethnicity is a whole other issue.

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