Public Domain, An Initiative to Place the Paintings of Ralph Fasanella in Museums and Public Places was begun in 1986 in New Bedford, Massachusetts by the organizer, Ron Carver who was then working as an organizer for the same union Ralph worked for forty years earlier. That year Carver raised funds in both New Bedford and Lawrence, Massachusetts to secure painting for public display in those communities. 

The following year Carver left his union staff position to bring this project on the road to Flint, MI, Miami, Oakland, CA, New York City and Washington, DC. In each city Carver would arrange for Ralph to speak to young people at schools and universities. Within a few years, Public Domain was able to secure a dozen painting from collectors and donate them for display in public venues. Realizing that the effort needed an institutional home, Carver reached out to John Beck at Michigan State University. The two first met when John was the education and research director for the United Paperworkers’ International Union. The first request was for MSU to host the website Fasanella.org.

On May 1st in 1993, we opened a month and a half long exhibit of Ralph Fasanella paintings at the MSU Museum, “‘This Guy’s Painting Our Lives’: Ralph Fasanella, Worker Activist/Worker Artist.” That exhibit really jump started the life of Our Daily Work/Our Daily Lives on the campus of Michigan State University. I co-curated the exhibit with Yvonne Lockwood, who co-founded Our Daily Work/Our Daily Lives and co-directed the program with me for decades before she retired from the University. This exhibit at MSU was the event that ultimately led to  the fasanella.org project, initially launched in commemoration of the 2014 hundredth anniversary of Ralph Fasanella’s birth. 

Our Daily Work/Our Daily Lives was begun as a joint program of the Labor Education Program at MSU and the Traditional Arts program of the MSU Museum (now in partnership with the Residential College of Arts and Humanities). This collaboration cemented the role that worker culture plays in the life of workers and the labor movement and the position that it holds as one of the most important terrains of lived experience and folk art expression within the broad fields of art, craft, folklore, music, literature, anthropology and history among others. Under the ODW/ODL umbrella, we have sponsored a number of exhibits, poetry and fiction readings, plays, film showings, and over twenty-five years of presentations within our brown bag series. Our work together on Our Daily Work/Our Daily Lives earned us one of MSU’s prestigious Excellence in Diversity Awards in 2003.

Build Your Union (1991) • Ralph Fasanella • Oil on Canvas • 29 x 21 in

It was very appropriate that an exhibit of Ralph Fasanella paintings would be the most significant inaugural event in the early life of Our Daily Work/Our Daily Lives. No single individual is a more appropriate example of the mixture of passion, creative expression, activism, vision and solidarity than Ralph. His paintings electrified the west gallery of the Museum, filling all who saw them with awe and a deep reverence for the working people, labor actions and the vibrancy that lives in workplaces, neighborhoods, union halls and family kitchens. Ralph Fasanella was truly an American original and is not only a great worker/labor artist, but one of America’s greatest 20th century artists – period.

It is also fitting that one of his paintings, “Build Your Union,” was one of the strong cornerstones in the building of the Our Daily Work/Our Daily Lives collection at the MSU Museum. The collection includes two Fasanella paintings (the second, “Braddock Lunch,” was a gift from the collection of radical economics professor and folk art collector Daniel Fusfeld), along with paintings and other craft objects from other artists across the state of Michigan, the nation and the world. “Don’t Mourn, Organize” was a gift from United Food and Commercial Workers Local 951, based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and is held in trust for the working people of the state by three of the State of Michigan’s universities, including MSU.

Worker culture is created every day when a man or woman crosses the threshold of their workplace. It is created in the languages and customs we share on the job, the stories and music in the break rooms or in our heads, and the ways that we deal with the joys, stresses, tragedies and events that make up our days. Worker culture is dynamic. Worker culture is historic. Ralph Fasanella has served, and continues to serve, as the ambassador into the world of worker culture for people across the globe.   

Our Daily Work/Our Daily Lives is currently co-directed by John P. Beck of MSU’s School of Human Resources and Kurt Dewhurst of the MSU Museum and the Michigan Traditional Arts Program. To find out more about Our Daily Work/Our Daily Lives and to be put on the e-mailing list for information on upcoming events, contact John P. Beck at: beckj@msu.edu.

Photo taken by Anthony Riccio