Naive art recalls life in Slovak village
This scene of a confrontation between two roosters is by Pavel Hajko, who often features roosters in his work.
A young woman stands in a field of flowers and holds a Bible. The artist is Eva Husarikova, whose work often features children in accurately detailed ethnic dress.
Workers till the soil in this work by Zuzana Chalupova, who laid down her needle and thread and started painting at the age of 40. UNICEF has reproduced her work in greeting cards. She is also known as "Mama Zuzana."
A bride and groom are accompanied by villagers in this detail of a scene by Katarina Kozikova.
This is the picture that Albina Senko bought for her granddaughter, Milena, because it reminded her of her childhood in Slovakia during World War II. The painting is by Michal Gerzov and is titled "Praying."
Albina Senko outside the building at 2910 E. Carson St., South Side, where she came with her mother to join her father following World War II. The family lived in a two-room apartment, now Apt. 1, on the ground floor at the rear of the building.
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During a visit in April to the Slovak embassy in Washington, D.C., Albina Senko saw an exhibition of naive art that included a painting of a young girl kneeling beside her bed to say nightly prayers.
"It reminded me of myself as a child," said Mrs. Senko, who was born in Slovenska Ves, a rural village of 600 people northeast of Bratislava, Slovakia's capital.
She survived World War II, came to America at a young age and now lives in Mt. Lebanon with her husband, Joseph, the honorary consul to the Slovak Republic.
Mrs. Senko liked the colorful painting so much that she bought it. It will be one of 40 works from the Slovak embassy that will be exhibited in a show that opens Tuesday with a two-hour cocktail reception in the upper lobby of the U.S. Steel Tower.
Painted in vivid colors and reminiscent of the work of Grandma Moses, this naive art reflects life in an artists' colony called Kovacica, a town in Serbia. Slovakians began immigrating to Kovacica in the 18th century; today, a museum in the community is devoted to their work.
Mr. Senko, executive director of the Western Pennsylvania Slovak Cultural Association, plans events for the local Slovak community of 105,525 people. Mrs. Senko helped arrange the art exhibit that includes the painting titled "Praying" by Michal Gerzov. Mrs. Senko, 74, said the painting brought back some bittersweet memories of her childhood.
"My mom and I and my grandmother survived the war together," she said, adding that they lived in a wooden home insulated with clay like the chinking used in America's frontier log cabins.
A month after she was born, her father, William Kolodzej, left for the United States and later lost contact with his family during the war. He served in the U.S. Army and the Allies invasion of Normandy.
The women lived in the foothills of the Tatra Mountains near the Polish border, and while the scenery was beautiful, summers were short and the long winters could be harsh, with snow starting in October. Meals consisted of potatoes, bread, pasta, cabbage and soup. Once a week they had chicken or pork; beef was a rare treat. The home had no running water, indoor plumbing or electricity. She did her homework by oil lamps and candlelight.
Before going to sleep in her feather bed, "I prayed that there would be no more war. I prayed for my mother. I prayed for my grandmother. Religion in a little village like that was very important," Mrs. Senko said.
Villagers could not lock their doors during the war because German soldiers often needed sleeping quarters. "If they were not very nice soldiers, we had to sleep on the floor and they'd take over the beds."
One night, as she said her prayers, a German soldier heard her and began to cry. From his knapsack, he pulled out a chocolate bar and gave it to her. "I didn't know what it was," she recalled.
Each day, her mother, Margaret Kolodzej, now 95, worked as a farm laborer, fertilizing fields and harvesting potatoes and wheat. With her father gone, Mrs. Senko's grandmother, Anna Bizub, helped raised her.
After the war her father wrote to his family in Slovakia, asking his wife and daughter to join him in Pittsburgh. "He wanted us to come with a contingent of women who had married U.S. soldiers," Mrs. Senko said.
So with her mother, she left the village at age 10 in a wagon. She never saw her grandmother again.
They took the S.S. Gibbons to America from LeHavre in France. It was loaded with war brides above deck and flag-draped caskets bearing dead soldiers below. The trip took 11 days. When they arrived in New York Harbor on July 3, passengers were treated to a picnic with hot dogs, watermelon and potato chips.
None of the passengers knew that they had arrived on the eve of a national holiday and believed that the picnic and fireworks that exploded around the Statue of Liberty were in honor of their arrival.
Mrs. Senko finally met her father for the first time at the Pittsburgh and Lake Erie rail station, now the Grand Concourse in Station Square. He gave her several packs of gum, which she began chewing, leaving her unable to answer his questions.
"I had never seen gum before," she said.
The family lived in two rented rooms in a home on East Carson Street, near the Sokol Club on the South Side.
"My mother and I cried for about six months. We said, 'There's no grass and no flowers growing in America, just smoke. We were directly across from the street from the Jones & Laughlin steel mill. My father worked there in the Eliza boiler house," Mrs. Senko said.
A few years later, the family moved to a home in Uptown that had a tiny patch of grass. She graduated from St. Michael High School on the South Side, and at 19 married Joe Senko. The couple raised six children in a six-bedroom home with a pool -- a far cry from her childhood home with no electricity, indoor plumbing or running water.
As far as the painting of the girl saying her prayers, Mrs. Senko gave it to her granddaughter, Milena Mitchell, who was born a year-and-a-half ago. Her Slovak name means "loved one."
"She's the love of my life. I sing her Slovak lullabies."
Correction/Clarification: (Published July 14, 2010) Albina Senko first met her father at the Pittsburgh & Lake Erie Railroad station. The site was misidentified in this article as originally published July 12, 2010 about Slovak art.
First Published July 12, 2010 12:00 am