Monday, October 29, 2012

THE MURALS OF MAXO VANKA, Millvale, Pennsylvania. Guest Post by Lester Scheaffer

St. Nicholas Church, Millvale, PA with murals by Maxo Vanka
Seventy-five years ago, Croatian artist Maximilian Vanka completed the murals inside St. Nicholas Church in Millvale, Pennsylvania, a remarkable work of art of both religious and social and political commentary.  My parents, Les and Kay Scheaffer, who were graduate students at the University of Pittsburgh at the time, made regular visits to watch Maxo Vanka work.  In his retirement, my father wrote about their experience.  His story is below.  You can see details of some of the murals and learn about them at

    A small bearded man knelt on a scaffold assessing his depiction of an angel. With a paint brush in one hand and hanging onto a rope with the other, he leaned back to get some perspective in the waning afternoon light. Apparently satisfied, he straightened up, put the brush into a number ten can and edged carefully to the end of the scaffold. He climbed down, leaving a void in the ceiling where his silhouette had been a few minutes before. When he reached the floor, he walked over to where we were standing and joined us in surveying his work. For a minute or so, no one said anything, though we were full of questions.
    The artist broke the silence after looking closely at each of us.
    "Are you brother and sister? You look alike."
    "No. We're husband and wife, Les and Kay."
    At that point a door opened at the right of the altar and a priest came down the aisle. He reminded the artist that supper was ready. As we started to leave, the artist introduced us as "young married students from the university."  He pointed to the priest, saying,
    "This is my friend, Father Joseph."
    The priest smiled and replied, "And my good friend, Maxo Vanka."
    Each had emigrated to America in 1929.  Father Joseph had been given a Croatian church in the town of Millvale, near Pittsburgh, and Mr. Vanka had settled in New York City.  In 1937, at the request of Father Joseph, Maxo Vanka had agreed to paint the sanctuary of the church with murals. They would depict stories of the Bible, life in Croatia, and life in America.

    On the following Saturday we returned to Millvale, entering the church in mid-afternoon. The western sun formed its own scaffold of rays, lighting up the paintings and particularly the Virgin Mary. She was looking at us no matter where we stood or sat in the sanctuary. She was above the altar, not dressed in 16th century Italian finery, but in a brilliant red Croatian wedding dress. The high neck gown was decorated with yellow, green, and red braid, from her collar down to her dark blue slippers. There were only three of us in the church--Kay and I and Mr. Vanka, or four if you count Mary.
    We turned to the south wall depicting the Croats in America: A family around a kitchen table, a group of men at work in a steel mill, and a Sunday picnic at the river park. Kay pointed to a pretty little girl, nine or ten years old, who appeared in the family mural scenes.
    "Who is the little girl?"
    Mr. Vanka could not have been more pleased that she had noticed  the pretty little blonde girl with two braids over her shoulders. "That's Peggy, my ten year old daughter. She's an American girl, home with her mother while I'm working here. I miss her and her mother very much."
    Then we asked about the little bird that appeared in so many of the paintings.
    "That's Pepralitsa, the bird who flew into my studio one day, very frightened until I talked to her and told her about my garden in Zagreb. I gave her part of my sandwich and she never left. That is, I left the window open a little bit so she could come and go as she wished and she kept coming back. I would carry bread crumbs and millet seeds in the breast pocket of my smock. I showed her the way, and she would spend a lot of time in my pocket--her nest."
    "Let me tell you a funny story about Pepralitsa.   One day I was invited to a dinner party preceding the opening of a show in my honor. Mrs. Vanka was invited too, and assumed that I would wear a tuxedo, it being a formal occasion. I did put on all the formal wear except the tuxedo jacket. I thought it would be fun, and what people might expect of an artist, if I wore my painting smock instead of the black tuxedo jacket. Mrs.Vanka thought this was rather bizarre but reluctantly gave in to my arguments. I didn't tell her that Pepralitsa had been sleeping in my pocket for several nights and would also be going along to the dinner party. Well, things went along fine through the reception, and, as I had speculated, the ladies in particular seemed to like the idea of an eccentric artist in their midst wearing a clean but paint smudged smock to a formal dinner. Perhaps they assumed that the bulging breast pocket contained a paint cloth or some tubes of paint. But then at dinner it happened--Pepralitsa got hot or curious, popped out of my pocket onto my shoulder, then flew across the table to light on the head of an older lady who had spent the evening trying to impress me with her knowledge of art. With Pepralitsa dancing in her hair she let out a scream that even frightened my little bird. Pepralitsa came back to my shoulder and after a gentle scolding I gave her some crumbs and told her to stay in my pocket. The lady calmed down, but Mrs. Vanka wasn't too pleased with her eccentric husband."
    After his story, Mr. Vanka excused himself and climbed back onto his scaffold.
    We came back many times, getting better acquainted with Mr. Vanka and also with Father Joseph.

    It was Father Joseph who, over tea one evening, told us about the early days of the Millvale church when Father Albert was the priest:
    "Father Albert came to America in 1914 soon after the Sarajevo incident and the outbreak of war in Europe. He was sent to Pennsylvania and given a mission church in our smoky little city on the river. Millvale already had a number of Croatian immigrants, and more were coming all the time. They soon outgrew the little Catholic church and it was Father Albert's job to plan and raise money for a larger one. Some money came from the diocese but much of the money was wheedled out of his parishioners.”
    “Some people thought that he demanded too much from his church members who had large families to support and worked for low wages in the steel mill. They didn't dare complain to the priest but somehow gossip got back to him and he didn't like what he heard. Some people said his sermons were too long, and that he was always scolding the congregation. Perhaps much of this was pure gossip, but it was clear that Father Albert was not much loved by his flock, and he knew it.”
    “This went on for fifteen years, and then the worst thing happened--the Bishop came to him, before he was even seventy years old, and suggested that it was time for him to retire. So with much bitterness, Father Albert left the church.”
    “Soon after Father Albert retired, he passed away. Some people say he died of a broken heart. I came to America after he was gone and buried, and therefore never met him. Mrs. Velazic swears that he came to one of my evening services, but she was the only one who saw him. She said he floated down the aisle waving his arms and shaking his fist at me. She even thinks he tasted the communion wine and then vanished through the west wall. Of course, Mrs. Velazic was an old lady, in her eighties, and never did see too well."
    We asked Father Joseph, "Did you ever tell that story to Mr. Vanka?"
    "No, no! There are enough mysteries in life without adding any more." And then with a little nervous laugh, he said, "Maxo does a lot of painting at night. He has to keep his mind on his work to meet our Easter deadline."

    It had been eleven years since Father Albert had seen his church, eleven years of purgatorial expiation, free-floating around Millvale. However, time and mortality were no longer factors with Father Albert. Tonight he would visit the church just to alleviate his loneliness and to make sure that things hadn't changed too much. It was 11:30 when he went in. He knew there would be an altar light, but he didn't expect to see a spotlight focused on the ceiling, nor a scaffold, nor a man on the scaffold painting pictures-spoiling his church. Father Albert thought, No one consulted me about this, painting my church with all these pictures. I'll talk to the Bishop about it.  He glided down the center aisle, studied the murals, and shook his fist at Mr. Vanka.
    Maxo heard nothing but sensed that someone was in the church. He looked down and saw the priest. He saw him face the scaffold and shake his fist. He saw him taste the communion wine--and then disappear through a closed window. Maxo was shaken by what he saw. He went back to work, but left the church early.
    After the same thing happened four nights in a row, Maxo told Father Joseph about it and then heard the story of Mrs. Velazic's vision. Father Joseph suggested that Maxo take a few days' rest, that he go home to see his family and then come back to finish the murals.

    It was three weeks before we were able to get back to Millvale. Mr. Vanka was not on the scaffold. We decided to go see Father Joseph. As we sipped coffee, Father Joseph answered our question:
    "Mr. Vanka has been working too hard, too many late nights, he needed a rest. It seems that Father Albert has been visiting the church at night, bothering Mr. Vanka. Maxo went home but he'll be back."
    At that point the housekeeper came in--"Father, The Bishop is on the phone."
    "Excuse me, friends, while I take this call. The Bishop has been worried about a call he got a few days ago, some `crank' impersonating Father Albert--after all these years!"

    Mr. Vanka came back in a few days, and from then on painted only in the daytime. He completed the work by the middle of March. On Easter morning, 1942, the murals were blessed by the Bishop.

Monday, October 22, 2012

GLACIER NATIONAL PARK, Montana: A Place to Renew Your Spirit

Hidden Lake, Glacier National Park, Montana
Recently, I came upon an article about Glacier National Park promoting it as a place to go to renew your spirit and it brought back memories of my trip to Glacier with my family in 1961. We drove from our home in Minneapolis across North Dakota and most of Montana to get there and spent a week camping in the park, sleeping in our umbrella tent and cooking on our camp stove and over the fire. As I still do when I travel, I kept a diary of the trip.  My parents saved the diary, and I found it recently when I was going through some old family photo albums. My entries note both our activities of the day and more mundane issues such as the weather and what we ate for dinner. (In one entry I describe making peach cobbler over the campfire. In another, I tell how I burned all the lamb chops for dinner!)  I have put some excerpts of our daily activities below. Bear in mind that I was seventeen when I wrote them! For information about visiting the park today go to the National Parks website for Glacier at

Glacier National Park 
Excerpts from Caroline’s 1961 Vacation Log
August 5
We entered Glacier at 1:00.  Our campsite is nice, near St. Mary (Rising Sun Campground) and after it was set up we swam at Lost Lake, a beautiful, cool, but refreshing lake at the bottom of a mountain.

August 6
We first went to Sun Point and then walked to Baring Falls.  The walk was so pretty we used up all the film in the cameras! 

Hike to Virginia Falls with Ranger
 August 7
We got up early for a 9:00 hike to Virginia Falls.  Since no one else was there, we got a specially guided tour by the ranger.  The hike didn’t really seem like six miles because he knew so much and made it sound so interesting.  We ate our lunch on a beautiful grassy ledge about half way up the falls, where we were continually sprayed with mist.

August 8
Most of today was spent in the car recuperating from yesterday’s hike. ... We stopped at Avalanche campground and went on a self-guided nature trail and saw a bear.

August 9
The clouds descended and the rain poured forth as I stayed in my tent all morning reading,  ignoring the deluge in hopes that it would desist. [I was reading the
Scarlet Letter, which today sounds like rather ambitious summer reading.  Perhaps it inspired my rather ambitious prose.]

August 10
We took a somewhat leisurely hike back to Hidden Lake for lunch, photographing wildflowers along the way.  We saw three ptarmigan, who were so tame that I got within eight feet to take a picture.  By the same rock on the way back Steve and I saw a hoary marmot, but he, not being so friendly, ducked into his hole before we could photograph him. 

August 11
This morning we arose bright and early for our hike along the Garden Wall.  For the first hour and a half it was rather chilly because of being in the shade of the mountain.  Later the valley dropped below us, revealing a spectacular view, at one point all the way to the end of Lake McDonald.  After four and a half hours of easy walking, with the exception of one switchback, we stopped for a picnic lunch within view of the Granite Park chalet. The last three and half miles went surprisingly fast.  After recuperating for an hour at the chalet with a 35 cent piece of pie, we descended to the end of the trail.

August 12
After lunch we decided to go to Waterton Lakes National Park [the Canadian side of Glacier National Park.] After four miles, however, we got a flat tire, out in the middle of nowhere. [As I remember, the only road connecting the parks was rough gravel.]  The trip, when we finally arrived was worth it, for the scenery was beautiful and the Prince of Wales Hotel was just like a castle out of an old English storybook.

I have fond memories of the Glacier trip and remember the park for its spectacular scenery and as a place not overcrowded with tourists.  Several years ago, one of my brothers returned to Glacier and went back to many of the same places we visited in 1961.  One difference now is that the glaciers, for which the park is named, are rapidly melting due to global warming.  Nevertheless, it is still one of our most beautiful national parks and a perfect place for renewing your spirit at any time of year.

Monday, October 15, 2012

BERLIN and POTSDAM: Brandenburg Gate, Sans Souci, Marble Castle, October 1998

Potsdam, San Souci, former summer palace of Frederick the Great
(Entry from my London Diary, October 5, 1998)
    Last night we returned from a four-day trip to Berlin and Hamburg, Germany, where our days were so full it seemed as if we were gone even longer.  This was my first visit since the Wall came down in the fall of 1989.  The changes to the city are remarkable with countless new ultra-modern buildings, many more building projects underway, and the refurbishing of many beautiful old buildings that had been sadly neglected during the communist era.  The architecture of Berlin is a mix of grandly historical buildings side by side with modern buildings of glass and chrome and the two are surprisingly well integrated. 
     October 3 is the date of Germany’s Reunification Celebration (somewhat equivalent to our 4th of July), so Saturday was a national holiday with speeches and parades.  The weekend of our visit also coincided with the opening of a huge new development called Daimler City, a business, apartment, shopping, entertainment center, built by Daimler-Mercedes Benz  on the site that had once been the no-man’s land close to the Wall and the Brandenburg Gate.  For many people it symbolizes the birth of the new Berlin.  The ceremonies began with music and a huge laser and fireworks display and then the whole center was opened to the public.  It seemed to us that everyone in Berlin had come to see the new center as we pushed our way through the crowds who had come to look, eat, drink, shop and view the new IMAX theater. 
    Berlin has always been a city with a lot of entertainment and culture and boasts many art museums, theaters and musical events.  On Thursday night we went to a piano concert in the Philharmonic center and on Saturday we went to an orchestral concert in a beautiful refurbished concert hall in what had been East Berlin. The entire time that we were in Berlin the weather was bitterly cold and rainy, and we had to wear every layer that we had brought in order to stay warm. but this didn’t deter us from sightseeing.
    On Saturday we went to Potsdam (Berlin’s twin city on the other side of the river) where we visited the castle and garden of Sans Souci.  We ate lunch nearby at Cecilianhof, which is now a hotel and a museum where you can see the room where the Potsdam Agreement was signed after World War II.  We then walked across a large park to visit another recently refurbished royal residence, the Marble Castle, where we admired the art as we skated across the beautiful parquet floors in the wooly slippers that we were required to slip over our shoes.

Boat Trip in Berlin
    On our drive back to Berlin from Potsdam we passed by the cottage at the side of a lake where Albert Einstein lived for several years before he came to America.  Our stay in Berlin also included a little shopping (we added to our china set and Art finally found a leather key case), a boat ride around the city, and a tour of the Technical University where our friend works. 
    By the time we got back to London we were ready for some quiet time. 

Monday, October 8, 2012

FAIRFIELD, IOWA, Mailboxes and More: Guest Post by Barbara Siebenschuh

"American Gothic" Mailbox, Fairfield, Iowa
My friend Barbara Siebenschuh, classmate (Grinnell College) and roommate (University of Iowa), who still lives in Iowa City, recently visited the small town (population 9464) of Fairfield, Iowa, in the southeast corner of Iowa, about 1 ½ hours from Iowa City.  I have never been to Fairfield, but I was charmed by her description of the town and Maharishi University on the outskirts.  I think you will enjoy reading her report.

Barbara and mosaic mural
     I went with my friend to Fairfield, Iowa, to retrieve a jacket she had left in a shop there the week before. I had never been to Fairfield, Iowa. It was a beautiful day and not windy. The jacket was waiting for her at the Blue Fish specialty clothing store. We eventually walked the whole square. Many shops had special hours so not all shops were even open, or opened later. I found a neat little kitchen store I liked very much. In the back, it was a yarn store as well. The clerk there told us to look at some mosaics in an alley nearby. We did and they were very ambitious and colorful.

"Dressed Up" Mailbox, Fairfield, Iowa
Also, there had been a town enterprise to design mailboxes and a few were still up. They were really neat, especially when one thinks they have to hold up to the elements. Perhaps, Fairfield had seen a large grasshopper population lately because one of the boxes had a jaunty grasshopper and a message to be rid of such, suggesting I guess, to mail them out of town. My favorite mailbox was a Trojan pony because of the construction--the wooden tail served as notification that there was mail. There was also an over-the-top fruit and baubles mailbox which seemed like Carmen Miranda had commissioned it. Great creativity!

    We ate at a vegetarian place called "Revelations" and I had a faux BLT with protein strip colored like bacon to provide some crunchiness. We sat among a whole room, one of many, of used books for sale. Nice place.
     More shops were tried or peered into. By the time we got back around the square to the car, a Aryuvedic store was open with lots of expensive looking statues. We did not go in as we could see a lot of it from the doorway.  I was charmed by the shops on the square–many little features that left Iowa City years ago.

     We had gotten directions to hit Highway 1 (we had come another way) in order to see Maharishi University as we drove out of town. We got on Highway 1 but were not prepared for the sprawling huge size of the Maharishi complex.  We saw the student union but we also saw unmarked buildings (huge) and signs farther down for Vedic City. The architectural hallmark seemed to be swirling cones atop yellow pinkish buildings that showed nothing to the outside. It was almost like the window panes were opaque; no signage, well, one: visitors park and go in the building here: no lawn features. Wow. Well, I have seen Maharishi in part-at least from the outside.
     We saw little traffic on our entire trip and the outstanding impression was that this area around Fairfield had been hard hit by the drought. Many trees and bushes were dead looking. I doubt they will survive the winter winds.

Mural detail
With thanks to Dania De Bortoli of the Fairfield 1st Fridays Art Walk for photos of the mailboxes and to Barb's friend Kathleen for the photos of the murals.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Easter Island's Giant Statues: How Did They Move Them?

The first European visitor to Easter Island was a Dutch sea caption, Jacob Roggeveen, who landed on April 5, 1722.  In the tradition of his time, he named his “discovery” for the day of his arrival, which was Easter Sunday.   Today, the island is known both as Easter Island (Isla de Pascua in Spanish) and Rapa Nui, a Polynesian name given to it in the nineteenth century by Tahitian sailors.

Sixteen centuries ago, about 400 A.D., a small group of seafarers and their families sailed east across the Pacific from their island homes in central Polynesia.  Their large double canoes were filled with food, water, tools, and other things they needed to survive.  After many weeks they reached the rocky shores of a small island, later known as Easter Island.  There they established homes, planted gardens, and started a new life.  They developed a rich and complex culture that lasted for more than a thousand years.  Perhaps their most remarkable and unique accomplishment was the carving of giant stone statues called moai.  They created nearly a thousand of these stone figures, some more than three stories high, and erected hundreds of them on huge stone altars called ahu.  Even more amazing is that all this was accomplished by people whose only tools were stone, bone, and coral.

The ancient Easter Island statue makers were skilled craftsmen specially trained in the art of stone carving.  They were privileged and honored members of the community, and, according to legend, they did no other work.  They were provided with food by fishermen and farmers.  Ruins of stone houses found at Rano Raraku are believed to be the places where the sculptors lived.
    Sculptors carved the moai with basalt adzes, or axlike tools called toki.  Thousands of toki litter the ground in the Rano Raraku quarry.   Basalt was also used to make axes for wood cutting as well as for fishhooks and household tools. Obsidian, a glass-like rock that is formed when lava cools rapidly, is another stone that Easter Islanders used for tools.  Obsidian is extremely hard and can be shaped into a razor-sharp cutting edge,  It was used to make cutting and scraping tools, drills, and files.  Because obsidian absorbs tiny amounts of water when it is cut, this can be measured to determine the date that the tool was made.  

    Sculptors carved a moai with the statue lying on its back.  After chipping the outline of the statue’s profile into the quarry wall, they made a niche around it so they could work from both sides.  People at the back side worked in a cramped space about two feet wide and five feet deep.  The sculptors began by carving the head of the moai and finished with the hips. 
    No two moai are exactly alike, although most follow a basic model.  All of them are designed to be standing figures with the base at about hip level.  The arms hang straight down the sides of the body, but the hands, which have elongated fingers, curve around the front of the abdomen.  Moai heads are elongated and always face forward.  The faces usually have narrow lips, large noses, and deep eye sockets below a large forehead.  The ears are usually long and sometimes have depressions in the earlobes where ornaments could be inserted.  Most moai are male although there are a few examples of female figures.

Moai at Anakena
   After the carving of the top, or the front half, of the moai was complete, the bottom was slowly undercut until a narrow ridge of rock was all that attached it to the quarry.  This was then cut away and the moai was lowered to the bottom of the hill with ropes.  There the figure was set upright into a hole in the ground and carving of the back was finished.  The standing statues that now litter the slopes of Rano Raraku are abandoned moai whose lower portions gradually became buried by eroding rocks and soil from above.
    The real challenge in moving the finished moai was getting it from the quarry to the ahu where it would be erected.  Most of these sites were at least several miles away, an enormous distance to transport a huge object weighing many  tons.  The ruts of several roads that were used for moving statues to various parts of the island from the quarry can still be seen.
    No one knows exactly how the moai were moved or whether the statues were transported lying down or standing up.  A variety of experiments have been conducted, both with real moai during the process of reconstruction, and with models, to test possible methods of transportation.

    In the July 2012 issue of National Geographic, the cover article asks the same question. How did people move the moai, which, in some cases, weighed more than 80 tons?  According to local legend, the giant statues “walked” from the quarry to the altars where they were mounted.  In experiments conducted in 2011, scientists showed that as few as eighteen people could maneuver a large statue by tipping it from side to side, as if it were walking, and move it a few hundred yards.  Perhaps this is the answer.  But, no matter how the moai arrived at their destination, they will always be an impressive sight.

I visited Easter Island in 1996.  My experience there inspired my book Easter Island: Giant Stone Statues Tell of a Rich and Tragic Past (Clarion, 2000). The picture on the left, of a detached Easter Island head, was taken in front of the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County.  If you imagine the full-size statue, relative to my height, you can appreciate the enormous size of the Easter Island moai.

Note:  For a fictional story set on Easter Island, inspired by real events, you  might enjoy reading Easter Island:  A Novel, by Jennifer Vanderbes.  I recently read this book and it brought back many memories of my visit there.

UPDATE (November 12, 2012):  To view the latest attempt to solve the question of how the Easter Island moai were moved, you can watch the PBS Nova program The Mystery of Easter Island online. In it researchers demonstrate how the statues may have "walked" to their sites.  The program first aired on November 7, 2012.