Fundraiser proceeds to help preserve Millvale church paintings |

Fundraiser proceeds to help preserve Millvale church paintings

David Conrad
Rob Long
Injustice - 1941

“Big” and “provocative” describe painter Maxo Vanka's 22 murals at St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale.

“They're amazing,” said architect Page Thomas of the Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka. “I think anyone who comes to see the murals is hooked.”

To raise money and increase awareness of the paintings, the preservation society will present “Cocktails & Conversation,” its second annual fundraiser, at 6 p.m. March 6, in St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church. Organizers hope to sell out the church's seating for 300.

Actor-writer David Conrad, a Pittsburgh native who played Jim Clancy in the TV series “Ghost Whisperer,” will be the host.

“He's been a fan of the murals,” said Anna Doering of Pittsburgh's Squirrel Hill neighborhood, the preservation society's paid consultant.

Proceeds will be used to continue cleaning, restoring and better lighting Vanka's works.

Since 2009, the preservation society has raised nearly $500,000 for its multifaceted mission.

Vanka, a Croatian immigrant, painted the murals in 1937 and 1941 as works commissioned by a former parish priest.

In July 1937, Time magazine included an article on the murals and Vanka, who reportedly taught painting at the Royal Academy of Zagreb after World War I.

“Although he became famed as Yugoslavia's finest portrait painter, what Artist Vanka calls ‘the ironic title of Professor' irked him,” according to the Time article.

Some of the Vanka murals in Millvale show discomforting images inspired by the experiences of Eastern Europeans who came to the United States in the early 20th century. Some of the works address the issues of social injustice and war, including “Injustice,” which features a robed figure in a gas mask holding a tipped scale holding coins and bread.

“Maxo was a pacifist,” said Thomas, president of the board of directors of the Society to Preserve the Millvale Murals of Maxo Vanka.

Thomas also is among volunteer docents who offer free tours of the murals at 11 a.m., noon and 1 p.m. each Saturday at the church.

“I call it the Sistine Chapel in Millvale,” Thomas said. “It's an amazing treasure, right in our backyard.”

Docents once used flashlights to illuminate Vanka's works during tours. They now use two portable Klieg lights.

“It's still not efficient, but it's better than flashlights,” Doering said.

Since 2009, the preservation society has raised enough money to clean and restore 10 of Vanka's murals and map plans to better illuminate the works.

“We've had a lighting design completed for them,” Doering said. “Part of this lighting scheme is to better light the church.”

Lighting designer Rob Long of Clear Story Creative will offer a preview of the new lighting during “Cocktails & Conversation.”

The estimated cost of the new lighting system is about $100,000, Thomas said.

People also can learn more about Vanka's murals by viewing “Behind the Murals: Histories and Other Stories,” an exhibit available through March 27 at the Panza Gallery, 115 Sedgwick St., Millvale.

In conjunction with the exhibit, Sylvia Rhor, associate professor of art history at Carlow University in Pittsburgh, will discuss “Vanka in Context: Pittsburgh's Mural Culture in the Early 20th Century” from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. Feb. 27 at the gallery.

Charles McCollester, retired professor of industrial and labor relations at the Indiana University of Pennsylvania, also will discuss “Out of Depression and War: Transcendent Hope and Maternal Protection” from 5:30 to 8:30 p.m. March 13 at the gallery.

“Cocktails & Conversation” will start at 5:30 p.m. March 6 at the church, 24 Maryland Ave., Millvale.

Tours of the Vanka murals will precede a 6 p.m. reception with entertainment by the Keystone Adult Tamburitzans. Tickets are $50, including cocktails, hors d'oeuvres, music and dessert. Tickets are available online at

Private tours of Vanka's murals can be scheduled by calling 412-407-2570 or sending a request by email to [email protected].

Deborah Deasy is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 724-772-6369 or [email protected].

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