By Margaret Shakespeare
In 1935, artist Maksimilijan (Maxo) Vanka joined fellow Croatian immigrant, the writer Louis Adamic, on a trip to American industrial centers, including ten days or so in Pittsburgh. Maxo absorbed the city, as was his habit, through his sketchpad. He produced enough images to mount a one-man show at a gallery in the city’s Oakland neighborhood. His work—the grasp and depth of his interpretive abilities—left an impression on Father Albert Zagar of St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale, a small, working-class borough adjacent to Pittsburgh.
Father Zagar, also a native Croat, wanted to tell the story of his immigrant congregation—their struggles, sorrows, hard labor, family strength, and simple, enduring faith. He raised money with a relentless spirit and persuasive vision. What more enduring testament, he thought, than art, larger-than-life murals adorning the sanctuary? And he knew just the artist: Maxo Vanka. The commission would reward the artist, who worked alone, $5,000. Vanka had long before left the church (likely becoming an atheist), and had married a Jewish woman from New York City, Margaret Stetten. But none of that seemed to matter.
The priest and the painter, who went on to have a close lifelong friendship, agreed that half of the twenty-five murals would adhere to religious themes while the others could tell secular stories of Maxo’s choosing. Vanka worked with water-base paint applied directly to the church walls, depicting social justice causes, family relationships, immigrant plight as freshly as twenty-first century headline stories—a mother grieving, sons killed in war, a capitalist family feast. (Vanka, a pacifist, had served as a Red Cross volunteer in WWI, which no doubt influenced his vision.) He worked at a furious pace during stints in 1937 and 1941—sometimes completing a single mural in four days—and returned, in 1951, to paint a banner across the choir loft.
TIME magazine covered the story of Maxo’s murals, which were created around the same time federal patronage for public art in the U.S. was reaching its height. “Pittsburgh broke the mold for New Deal mural art,” says Sylvia Rhor, director and curator of the University Art Gallery (UAG) at the University of Pittsburgh. Rhor is a leading expert on American mural art history, but she told me she knew nothing of Vanka and his Millvale murals until 2004. “I was raised Catholic. I knew murals, including church murals. I’d seen thousands of murals in cathedrals all over the world. And when I moved to Pittsburgh, someone mentioned the murals in St. Nicholas. Then you had to attend Mass to see them.” One Sunday, she went. “I was flabbergasted. In awe. I had to pick my jaw up off the floor,” she recalled. “And now they are my favorite in the world.”
Over the years, the murals suffered physically, mostly from water and salt damage. About a dozen years ago, a nonprofit, the Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka, formed to conserve the murals, install proper lighting, and create educational programs related to Maxo Vanka, his life and work. In the years since, the murals have been designated as landmarks by the Pittsburgh History and Landmarks Foundation and the National Register of Historic Places. The organization has funded the conservation and lighting of twelve of the twenty-five murals, and, according to the Society, four thousand people visit every year.
The conservation work has been led by Rikke Foulke, who remembers first seeing the Vanka murals in 2009. “I did some crude tests and found that they were so sensitive. I wasn’t sure [successful conservation] could be done safely. It was daunting.” The first step was to figure out exactly what medium the artist had used. Vanka, trained in traditional methods, had not made true frescoes, which start with application of paint onto wet plaster—the walls of Saint Nicholas had been set decades earlier. So he invented something that combined animal protein and a plant-based gum. (“It reminded me of poster paints from my childhood,” Foulke said.) Then came Pittsburgh’s famous smoke and soot, which had settled in, and water seepage from a storm-damaged roof that took years to reveal itself. But cleaning has been possible, with Foulke’s team relying on water-based products, adjusting the pH level, and other intricacies known to chemists.
The following images—by Amy Fisher of Pawsburgh Photography, shared here courtesy of the Society—reveal selections of the twenty-five murals, in varying stages of restoration. In them, Vanka’s vision of the challenges, labor, exploitation, and faith of working-class immigrants carries across centuries.