Perched high on scaffolding late into the night, Maximilian (Maxo) Vanka painted furiously to complete 22 murals on the white walls and ceiling of St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale. That was in 1937 and 1941.
Now a crew of conservators climb scaffolding to renew those murals, unique national cultural treasures, and extend their lives into the future.
At a celebratory event March 7, more than 200 people gathered to share conversation, food by The Culinary Artist Gourmet Catering Group and drink by the Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails against the backdrop of music by the Keystone Adult Tamburitzans.
More significantly, they heard an update on the murals conservation project and plans to install a new state-of-the-art lighting system. Speakers were lead conservator Rikke Foulke of Foulke Fine Art Conservation and Rob Long, principal and creative director of Clear Story. Gasps of appreciation were audible when Mr. Long shone a temporarily mounted spotlight upon a mural to demonstrate the visual effect museum-quality lighting would provide. The event raised $25,000 for the murals. The society plans to hold a similar event annually although not necessarily at the same time of year.
"The goal was to fund another mural, which is exactly what we did," said Page Thomas, president of the Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka. "We exceeded attendance and financial goals."
Decades of industrial pollution have darkened the murals, which are notable for the artist's use of Croatian motifs to represent traditional church subjects and for his politically charged social themes. Water damage from leakage was noted in the early 1980s, and the murals' very existence was threatened when the church roof took a hit as the remnants of Hurricane Ivan rolled through Pittsburgh in 2004.
Concerned parishioners were the first to try to protect the murals, and in 1990 the society was incorporated as a nonprofit organization dedicated to raising awareness of the murals and preserving them for future generations. The murals have received historical designations by the Pittsburgh History & Landmarks Foundation and the National Register of Historic Places.
The effort continues with an extended community of supporters and an ever-widening appreciation of what is undoubtedly the Croatian immigrant's greatest work, what Vanka called his "gift to America."
Six of the 22 murals, which cover 11,000 square feet, have been restored and cleaned. The conservation team, which besides Ms. Foulke comprises Patricia Buss, Cynthia Fiorini and Rhonda Wozniak, will next work on Crucifixion, painted in 1937, and Justice, from 1941.
Mr. Thomas said the order of murals to be worked on is determined by location. The lower ones, less than 15 feet in height, are easier to access and will be completed first. Different scaffolding will be built when the team moves to the higher works including those on the vault ceiling.
Ms. Foulke said that not long ago their work could not have been carried out as elegantly. Treatments are now available that she and her team are applying including the use of nanoparticles to stabilize efflorescence caused by water seepage from rainstorms. Ms. Foulke was one of the first in the U.S. to use nanoparticles in a project of this type, Mr. Thomas said.
Their two main challenges are removing the efflorescence caused by salts formed on the paint surface, and cleaning water-soluble dirt from water-soluble paint. They have worked with conservation chemists from the Getty, Los Angeles, and the University of Delaware, and Ms. Foulke has attended global preservation conferences. She presented a paper on the Vanka murals at a conference on salt weathering on buildings and stone sculptures in Cypress in 2011. (See the full paper, conservation updates and mural archival materials on the excellent society website, www.vankamurals.org.)
Techniques the team has used include a silicone polymer cleaning solution that removes surface dirt without penetrating the mural. The conservators at times may clean several square feet of a mural in a day while a similar more problematic area may take several weeks, Ms. Foulke said.
Everything the conservators do is reversible, which Ms. Foulke said is a very important rule in conservation. Even when they fill in areas of paint that have eroded or otherwise popped off, they use pastels, which may be removed with a brush. Varnish as a cover is avoided because it can create a microclimate underneath which water may collect or other damage may occur.
The lighting Mr. Long is planning is similarly conservation-conscious. The LEDs they plan to use emit very little heat and no ultraviolet radiation.
One of the more interesting asides discussed at the event was the acknowledgment that the narrative scenes to the lower left and right of the altar were additions painted by an artist commissioned in the 1970s. That accounts for the fact that they are stylistically quite different from those by Vanka.
The work, tours and planned lighting are designed to respect the needs of this active parish and with the support of the pastor, the Rev. Dan Whalen. It's a harmonious arrangement that speaks well to the continuance of this striking aesthetic and spiritual achievement.
Hourlong docent tours of the murals are given at 11 a.m., noon and 1 p.m. Saturdays. Private tours for individuals and groups may be scheduled by calling 412-407-2570 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.
Post-Gazette art critic Mary Thomas: email@example.com or 412-263-1925.