Mary, Queen of Croatians, above the altar at St. Nicholas Croatian Church in Millvale done by Croatian artist Maxo Vanka in 1937.
Preparatory drawing by artist Maxo Vanka of "Mary, Queen of Croatians," for Saint Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale. From the collection of Diane Novosel and Sam Iusi.
By Mary Thomas / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The Maxo Vanka murals of St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church, Millvale, have been rightfully recognized as a local (and national) treasure in the decades since a prescient group of parishioners began tending to their preservation. Regularly scheduled docent tours now make them available to a wider audience and research by scholars has argued for their place in Pittsburgh and art history.
“Behind the Murals”
Where: Panza gallery, 115 Sedgwick St., Millvale.
When: Through March 27, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Wednesdays through Fridays and 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Saturdays.
Admission: Free. Information: 412-821-0959 or www.panzagallery.com
A new exhibition and complementary events pull together what is known about, and what has been done for the murals, and takes a step beyond by placing them within the larger context of the period in which they were made. “Behind the Murals: Histories & Other Stories” at Panza gallery, Millvale, includes a timeline enlivened by quotes from parishioners, two drawings by Mr. Vanka from a local collection and photographs of some of the murals highlighting details. A fascinating second section details the conservation that ensures the murals’ longevity, a painstaking but necessary process that repairs and stabilizes areas of paint damaged by water leakage and salts.
That several-year effort is the inspiration for the title of an annual fundraising event by the nonprofit Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka, “Cocktails and Conservation!,” that will be held for the second time Friday at the church. The event’s host is Swissvale native and actor David Conrad. The church opens for tours at 5:30 p.m. and a cocktail reception begins at 6 p.m. in the lower level with food and libations by Chef Chaz of The Culinary Artists, Ladies United for the Preservation of Endangered Cocktails and Vecenie Distributing Co. The Keystone Adult Tamburitzans will play. At 7 p.m., Rikke Foulke of Foulke Fine Arts Conservation and Rob Long of Clear Story Creative will give a progress report on conservation work and new lighting for the murals in the church, followed by a dessert reception. A limited number of tickets ($50) are available and reservations are recommended at www.vankamurals.org.
Last week, Sylvia Rhor, associate professor of art history at Carlow University, spoke at Panza on “Pittsburgh’s Mural Culture in the Early 20th Century,” placing Mr. Vanka within the very active mural making here and across the country. She placed special emphasis upon the John White Alexander murals in the Carnegie Museums, restored in 1995; three murals completed for the Federal Post Office and Courthouse, Downtown, by Kindred McLeary, Howard Norton Cook and Stuyvesant Van Veen, the latter two of which survive but are not accessible by the public; and the Squirrel Hill Post Office mural, the “History of Squirrel Hill” by Alan Thompson, which was almost destroyed.
Ms. Rhor, who has done extensive mural research, said that when she moved to Pittsburgh one could only see the Vanka murals when a Mass was offered at the church. “I walked in and I was astounded.” She had not in her career come across anything like these images of war, labor and critique of capitalism. “These were beyond any images I had seen before.”
Charles McCollester will give a talk on labor history with a focus on the Allegheny Valley, “Out of Depression and War: Transcendent Hope and Maternal Protection,” on March 13 at Panza gallery (free). The gallery will be open from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m.; the hourlong talk begins at 6 p.m. followed by a Q&A. Mr. McCollester is the author of “The Point of Pittsburgh: Production and Struggle at the Forks of the Ohio” and “Fight With a Heart: The Writings of Charles Owen Rice, Pittsburgh Labor Priest.” He retired in 2009 as a professor of Industrial and Labor Relations at Indiana University of Pennsylvania. Before joining IUP in 1986, he worked in a restaurant, as a construction worker, a machinist and union leader.
He earned a doctorate from the Catholic University of Louvain, Belgium, and traveled extensively in Europe, the Middle East and Africa before settling in Pittsburgh in 1973. His travels included three trips to the former Yugoslavia and he has said that the civil war there seemed to embody the darkest aspects of Vanka’s portrayal of war and injustice.
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