Sunday, April 25, 2010

Rust Belt Chic: Pittsburgh Slavic Folk Art

I've never been to the St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Pittsburgh. But the Pittsburgh Quarterly article about the Maxo Vanka murals still burns in my memory. Perhaps David Byrne of Talking Heads fame might convince you to visit:

After lunch we look for a church in Millvale that had been recommended to me as having interesting murals. Millvale is a few miles down (up?) the river, a former mining village nestled in a valley. There are lots of boarded up stores, but a great French bakery. I buy a cake, as it's my birthday.

The church is Croatian and the murals, by Maxo Vanka, are spectacular. The Diego Riviera of Pittsburgh, I would say. They murals were done during 8 weeks in 1937 and they cover the interior of the church. Of course, there is the virgin holding the child, but below her, for example, on either side of what is now the altar, are Croatian people - on the left from the old world and on the right from the new. A steel foundry can be seen belching smoke behind them.

But more amazing are the political murals that echo the crucifixion. Widows mourn over a coffin that contains a bleeding corpse, a soldier. Crosses cover the hillside behind them. Another wall depicts a corrupt justice in a gas mask holding scales on which the gold outweighs the bread. Clearly WWI had a big effect on Maxo.

The virgin, on the verge of being bayoneted herself, separates two soldiers.

On another mural an oligarch done as Death reads the stock reports while being served a chicken dinner by two black servants.

One more: Jesus is stabbed, a second crucifixion.

These are badly in need of renovation - years of coal dust have darkened them. But one can hope that these amazing things will survive and be cleaned soon.

Byrne includes some images of the murals that are referenced in the above narrative. I encourage you to look at the entire post. More relevant to my post is the call to preserve these murals in today's Post-Gazette. This treasure in Millvale inspired my musings about Rust Belt Chic. I'd like to think that all the refugees from the Industrial Heartland share my passion and intrinsically understand the importance of this art.

I am asking that the Rust Belt Diaspora make a donation to save these murals. More ambitiously, think about the 7 Wonders of the Rust Belt. What are the seven greatest heritage sites of the world's cradle of manufacturing? What are the seven greatest heritage sites of your hometown? If you don't have the money, then donate your list. Let's put these places on the map and see what we can do to save them.

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