When you look out past the railroad tracks across the Allegheny River (just down the block from the artist’s apartment in the Pittsburgh neighborhood of Lawrenceville) you see Millvale, Pennsylvania. One Saturday this fall I ventured over to this small hamlet of a town, wandering past worn industrial buildings, a few newly-sprouted community gardens, rowhouses—likely the homes of former steel workers—and old churches. On the walk I met a young man from town on his way to one such church: St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Parish. He was about to give a tour of the church’s murals and asked if I wanted to come along. I had heard about an artist of the WPA era whose murals had recently been preserved, but hadn’t realized they were in the neighborhood. The church was cold and dark upon entry. A few others gathered in the lobby for the tour. Over the next hour-and-a-half I relaxed into a pew, craning my neck upward in delight as the young man and his fellow tour guide, a retired history teacher, talked to us about the Croatian American artist I had heard of only in passing: Maxo Vanka.
For some time in 1937 and then again in 1941, after Vanka naturalized as a U.S. citizen, the artist painted over 22 murals in tempera on site in St. Nicholas, a congregation home to ten percent of the U.S. Croatian immigrant population at the time. Themes of war and the rising labor movement dominate Vanka’s powerful scenes. The dress and ceremony of mourning women, I was told, was an Old World Croatian tradition. The faces of Vanka’s women had a sobering Byzantine look and feel to them with wide eyes full of sadness. Two of the most memorable murals for me include Injustice, depicted as a frightening woman wearing a long black gown and gas mask, holding scales unequaled by greed, a bloody sword resting on her shoulder. Another was The Capitalist, a Mr. Burns-style industrialist in top hat smoking a long cigarette, almost chucking to himself while reading the stock report as he is served a gluttonous feast.
Interestingly, Vanka was not religious. His accomplishment in Millvale speaks to an era of hard labor and sorrow that today we appreciate not as religious fervor, but rather, simple human history. For the curious, plan a visit on the weekend and call ahead for tour times, or get your hands on filmmaker Kenneth Love’s recently premiered documentary: Maxo Vanka’s Masterpiece: The Murals at St. Nicholas Church.