Thursday, May 05, 2011

Play: A Gift To America, Recalls The Mural's Creation @ St. Nicholas Church in Millvale

A play written several years ago about the creation of amazing Maxo Vanka murals will be performed at St. Nicholas Croatian Church, under the murals themselves Tonight through Saturday.

"David Demarest, who taught English literature at Carnegie Mellon University until his retirement, wrote "a dramatic interpretation of the creation of the murals" and titled it "Gift to America." The hour-long work was first staged in St. Nicholas in 1981 and to sold-out audiences in 2008.

"Gift to America" returns to St. Nicholas Church on Wednesday and continues through May 7. A silent auction of two drawings by Mr. Vanka and a poster for an exhibition of his work, and the Thursday performance with cocktail reception, will benefit the Campaign to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka.

Performances begin at 8 p.m. Wednesday and Friday and at 8:30 p.m. May 7. The church hall will open one hour prior, and seating will begin a half hour before the performance begins. There is no reserved seating. Tickets are $20 from or 412-394-3353, or $25 at the door. The benefit performance will begin with a cocktail reception at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, followed by an 8 p.m. performance and dessert reception. Tickets are $75, $80 at the door."

A long quote from Merge who visited the Church with me in 2007.

"Vanka's personal belief in the futility of war and his sadness at seeing his homeland destroyed are made patently obvious through his work. After being commissioned by Father Albert Zagar to paint the murals in 1937, Vanka completed two cycles of paintings (20 altogether)- the first in an eight-week span that spring, and the second group in 1941. The latter works clearly demonstrate his anguish over the war in Europe. He set for himself grueling shifts of up to 16-18 hours a day, and sustained his energy with multiple doses of Coca-Cola. Zagar gave the internationally-renowned artist a freehand to depict whatever imagery he so chose. In doing so, Zagar empowered Vanka to create timeless works mixing secular and spiritual concerns in a manner wholly original.

The content of these murals is truly unforgettable. There are mournful peasants entreating God for support in their difficult struggles in the Croatian countryside. An angel in a gas mask looms over the congregation from high upon one wall. An anguished, crucified Christ separates two war-crazed soldiers. In a similar scene, the Virgin Mary desperately tries her hand at a peaceful resolution. On another wall an industrial robber baron sits at dinner and is served a cleansing course of fiery retribution by a skeletal hand. These are not the placid reassuring scenes of sanctification that a regular churchgoer becomes acclimated to. They challenge the viewer to seek the holy in the most trying of times.

Had these paintings been completed for a museum, they would inspire a constant stream of tourists from all over the world. As it is, they await the few who become aware of their existence through word-of-mouth. Since my initial exposure to them, I have tried periodically to see them again. But it's no use showing up on church property, hoping for the random chance. You must call ahead of time to see the murals. Fortunately the woman in charge of tours is accommodating, and will show you around for nothing but a freely-offered donation. If you happen to be in the Pittsburgh area, I am scheduling a group tour for either this coming Monday or Tuesday. Contact me if you want to be included. The experience will leave an indelible mark upon you."

Some images taken by me.

Slideshow from Pittsburgh Quarterly

Maksimilijan Vanka on Wikipedia

Tours of these amazing murals are now offered every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday from 1-4

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