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North Hills Monthly

Maxo Vanka Murals Highlight Immigrant Plight, Pittsburgh History

Jun 30, 2019 11:18AM ● By Vanessa Orr

Conservators working on Christ on the Battlefield. Photo by Mindy McNaugher, McNaugher Photography

Every Saturday, visitors to Millvale can take a guided tour of the murals of Maxo Vanka, which are displayed on the walls and ceiling of St. Nicholas Church, home of the oldest Croatian parish in America. These stunning works of art, which illustrate everything from immigrants’ immersion into the New World to the horrors of war and the greed of a capitalistic society, are just as meaningful today as they were when they were painted in the 1930s and ‘40s.

“The murals appeal to people in so many ways, whether through their art, ethnography or religious aspect,” explained Docent Aaron Ciarkowski, who has been leading tours for the last 10 years. “Some people like them because it helps them feel a connection with their ancestors; others appreciate seeing a historical view of Pittsburgh.”

Vanka, an artist of great repute in his native Croatia, emigrated to New York with his American-born wife in the 1930s to flee the upcoming war. In 1935, he participated in an art exhibit in Pittsburgh, where St. Nicholas priest Father Albert Zagar saw his work. Recognizing a kindred spirit, he asked Vanka to paint the walls of the Frederick Sauer-designed church in Millvale.

“Vanka was given virtually free rein to paint whatever he wanted, and his sympathy for the common man who was abandoned or exiled was expressed through his art,” said Ciarkowski. “He saw a lot of similarities between the social injustices of the Old World and the New World, and you can see it in the murals.”

It is slightly overwhelming to walk into the almost 100-year-old church, where Vanka’s murals cover every spare surface. Filled with rich color, a sense of movement and a mixture of sadness and hope, the art is designed to evoke emotion in all those who see it. Much of it is about sacrifice—from Mother Mary holding baby Jesus, to Croatian mothers sending their sons off to war, to immigrant mothers losing sons in industrial accidents. 

“The 11 murals that Vanka painted in 1937 focus on immigrant labor and industry, while the second installment, which he painted in 1941, focuses on war,” explained Ciarkowski, adding that the artist often painted 18 hours a day, only taking Sundays off. Though he was not a practicing Catholic, Vanka also painted several Biblical scenes, including Jesus’ crucifixion, modeling Jesus’ likeness on an African-American man who lived in Lawrenceville.

Vanka painted his murals directly onto the dry plaster of the church using a commercial water-based preparation, which makes preserving them extremely difficult. Realizing their importance to the Croatian community, member of the parish and the city of Pittsburgh, in 1991 the Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka (SPMMMV) was formed to raise funds for immediate conservation needs.

It wasn’t until 2008, when the play Gift to America was staged at St. Nicholas, that the society realized even more needed to be done. “When the theatrical lights were focused on the murals, the society realized what a difference it made and an ambitious fundraising campaign to conserve and re-light the murals began,” said SPMMMV Managing Director Anna Doering. “Since then, we’ve raised more than $1 million to conserve 12 murals and to add new lighting, as well as to raise public awareness.”

It’s no small feat to conserve an eight decades’ old work of art. In addition to cleaning the murals, which is done with Q-tips, structural issues had to be dealt with since the murals were painted directly on the walls. Damage from Hurricane Ivan caused efflorescence in the walls, bringing salt to the surface and requiring conservators to experiment with a new technique using nanoparticles to stabilize the murals before cleaning.

“It takes roughly three hours’ time to clean one square foot of wall,” said Doering, adding that each of the 16-foot high Justice and Injustice murals on the church walls cost about $15,000 to conserve. Murals that take more work, such as the 325 sq. ft. battlefield scenes under the chair loft, cost $40,000 each, and it is estimated that the next phase of conservation, which will include everything above the pillars, will cost up to $500,000 to complete.

Much of the money required to conserve the murals is raised from public and private tours, as well as foundations and individuals. “The majority of our support comes from outside the St. Nicholas congregation, with about a 50/50 split between individual and institutional donors,” said Doering. “We receive significant community support, as well as help from a local, national and international audience.”

Visitors who want to see the murals and learn more about them can join tours every Saturday at 11 a.m. and 12:30 p.m. for a $10 donation. The society’s docents also provide private tours and special themed tours, such as one coming up in July that focuses on the use of birds in Vanka’s art.

“As Pittsburgh revitalizes itself, it’s important that we still have historical reminders of how things used to be,” said Ciarkowski of Vanka’s work. “The murals also serve as a moving tribute to our ancestors.”

To learn more about Maxo Vanka’s murals and St. Nicholas Church or to schedule a tour, visit https://vankamurals.org. The church is located at 24 Maryland Avenue in Millvale.