Bringing Life to Art: Maxo Vanka's Millvale Murals

May 15, 2015

To see some of Pittsburgh's most stunning artwork doesn't require a trip downtown but up a hill, to Millvale's Saint Nicholas Catholic Church. In two eight-week periods, one in 1937 and one in 1941, Croatian artist Maxo Vanka painted 25 murals that fuse faith and protest.

A fire burned Saint Nicholas to the ground in 1921. The new church might have been mistaken for the old except for the blank, white walls. The soaring expanse gave then-pastor Albert Zagar an idea, said Aaron Ciarkowski, docent at the Croatian parish.

“Father Zagar attends this art show downtown, and he’s looking over the work of this Croatian immigrant,” he said.

The artist was Maxo Vanka. It was 1935. Vanka had recently moved to the United States with his American wife and their daughter to escape Europe’s devolution into war.

“He writes a letter to Maxo through a mutual friend,” said Ciarcowski. “Please come visit my church here in Millvale. I’d like to commission you to paint these walls.”

Vanka painted 11 murals in just eight weeks. They depict familiar Christian scenes — Mary and the baby Jesus, the crucifixion — and a sense of calm pervades them. But when Vanka returned in 1941 to paint the other 14, things had changed, said Ciarkowski.

“Just two years before, the Second World War began and his homeland of Croatia was one of the first to be invaded,” he said. “He’s very angry.”

From a seat in the 21st pew, the Rev. Dan Whalen surveys the later murals: Angel Injustice in a gas mask; the Blessed Mother on the battlefield; the capitalist checking his stocks, ignoring the hunger of a man begging at his table.

“Yeah, they’re different,” Whalen said. “They really are.”

He added that Zagar gave Vanka free reign. 

“He didn’t tell him ‘I want this and I want that’ or anything, but he says, ‘I want you to put your heart into this and try to deliver it as best you can,’” Whalen said.

Vanka’s anger, at the suffering of workers and mothers and sons raised for war, presses on the viewer, said Ciarkowski. Nothing feels right or comfortable in these scenes. 

“We’re reminded that our time here on earth is short, to really spend that time treating those around us with respect and taking care of the earth,” he said.

More than 60 years after Vanka painted the struggle between the best and worst of human nature, there was a different battle of nature: When the remnants of Hurricane Ivan raged through Pittsburgh in 2004, St. Nicholas took on water through its roof and bell towers.

“And what that water has done, it’s created a moisture within the walls that has never dried out,” said Ciarkowski.

The diocese fixed the roof, but water continues to work its way out of the building. As it moves through the walls, it changes chemically and pushes out along the path of least resistance: Vanka’s murals.

Rikke Foulke and her all-female team of conservators, Patricia Buss, Teresa Duff, and Rhonda Wozniak, were hired by The Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka to stabilize, clean and restore the murals. Foulke knocked along the sidewall, listening for the hollow sound of damaged plaster. A small patch below the curve of a pew caved beneath her light touch.

“Did you see how that just crushed in like that?” she asked. “That is the salt.”

The salt, efflorescence, grows in startlingly fuzzy patches. It can’t force its way through the more modern paints that were applied to St. Nicholas in the 1950s and 1990s, so it edges through the more porous surfaces of a Croatian mother’s dress, or the capitalist’s table.

“The first time I saw it I thought, ‘What are we going to do?’” said Foulke.

She turned to the Ferroni-Dini (barium) Method, soaking poultices with a succession of chemicals and applying them to the walls. A series of reactions converts calcium sulfate — a destructive salt — into calcium hydroxide, part of a healthy plaster wall.

Eleven murals have been completed, but Foulke and her team are on hiatus while the society pursues another leg of its mission: to install new lighting that improves visibility and visitor experience. The group continues to seek support to complete the restoration of the murals. 

It's an honor to work on the murals, said Foulke. She pointed fondly to before and after photos. 

“They’re powerful images,” she said. “You step into the church and you forget you’re in a city, you feel like you’re somewhere else when you step in here.”

In the European tradition, Vanka painted himself into his work, in a mural toward the back of the church. Bald and wearing a goatee, he gazes at the resurrection, a hopeful scene, light, with angels playing traditional Croatian instruments.

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