Back Story

Discovering The Muralist’s Ghost

On one of my visits home to Pittsburgh a few years ago, my sisters and I were treated to a delightful tour of tiny St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church in Millvale. My father’s cousin, Mary Petrich, fulfilled the role of our docent extraordinaire, describing the rich history of the church and in particular, the story and significance of the murals that seemed to cover every square inch of wall and ceiling. Her stories vibrated with as much color and drama as the paintings, and soon I found myself asking more about the artist who had created them – Maxo Vanka.

Vanka proved as fascinating as his murals, and he was undoubtedly a man of principle, fortitude, and courage. He agreed to complete two sets of murals, one in 1937 and one in 1941, in record time. The church had set very tight deadlines for their completion. That meant working 15 – 17 hours a day on the plaster walls, and frequently, he painted well beyond the midnight hour. Alone in the darkened apse, situated high above the ground on his scaffolding, the work absorbed Maxo for the most part, but occasionally a deep chill would penetrate his bones. He would quake at the arrival of the freezing air, knowing it meant only one thing:  the ghost of the church had returned for a visit.

Though the ghost story represented less than one percent of the church tour, the thought of it grabbed me, and the idea for The Muralist’s Ghost began to crystallize. As well, Maxo Vanka, himself, had embodied charisma, and tales stretching from his childhood related his ability to attract birds, small animals, and children. Could he likewise have attracted the ghost, and if so, for what reason?

However, my curiosity about Maxo Vanka was propelled by more than this story of the occult. To understand what I mean, I really encourage readers to try and visit the murals at the church sometime, or failing that, visit one of the websites where they are featured (see references below). The paintings portray powerful concepts and are beautiful and frightening examples of social activism through art.

Such depictions became modus operandi for the artist. Maxo Vanka, raised by a poor, Croatian, country family despite his alleged noble birth, always identified with the common man, whether a peasant in Croatia or a bum on the Bowery. He railed against inequity and injustice, despised the bad treatment of the immigrant, the person of color, and the poor, and abhorred wars and fighting at any level. He called the Millvale murals his “Gift to America.” I believe he was calling us to responsibility – a man dedicated to social conscious-raising long before it became a popular catch phrase.

At any rate, his sensitivity, his passion, and his energy impelled me to write this book, taking me to the shores of Croatia, to Maxo’s beloved Island of Korcula, to Zagreb, and then, deep within the Slavic countryside. They also took me to the library here at home in Columbia, Missouri, or onto the phone with people who knew the artist and his work. The Muralist’s Ghost surfaced as the result, and soon, I hope you enjoy getting to know Maxo Vanka and the mystery of the ghost.

Please check out the references that follow if you would like to know more about Maxo Vanka, the church, Croatia, or World War I. And as with my first book, I wish to thank the countless people that helped me along the way (see acknowledgments in the book), the gracious hospitality of people from all over Croatia – the gallery docents, the tourism directors, the hoteliers, the waitstaff – for making us so welcome, and the people here at home: librarians, family and friends of Maxo Vanka, and my own family and friends.

More About Maxo Vanka and Croatia

Louis Adamic wrote prolifically in the early 20th Century, both fiction and nonfiction. In whatever form, his books give a good appreciation of conditions in what was then Yugoslavia, and in some parts, apocryphally describe Maxo Vanka’s life. The Michener Museum’s exhibition program of Vanka’s works provides an excellent chronology of the artist’s life and lends understanding to the drivers behind his work.  You can visit Vanka’s Millvale Murals at the first two websites listed below.

Adamic, Louis.

  • Cradle of Life. New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1936
  • The Native’s Return: An American Immigrant Visits Yugoslavia and Discovers His Old Country. New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1934.
  • My Native Land.  New York and London: Harper and Brothers, 1943.
  • “The Millvale Apparition.” The Harper’s Monthly, April, 1938, pp. 476-485.

James A. Michener Art Museum. The Gift of Sympathy: The Art of Maxo Vanka. Doylestown, PA: Michener Art Museum, 2001.

West, Rebecca. Black Lamb and Grey Falcon: A Journey Through Yugoslavia. New York: Penguin Group,  1969 (originally 1941 by Viking Press).




More About World War I

Since war played such a critical role in the creation of a number of the 1941 murals, I made a particular study to try and learn a little about what Maxo Vanka might have experienced as an ambulance worker in World War I. There are hundreds of books about the Great War, but these are a few that brought it home for me.

Arthur, Max.  Forgotten Voices of the Great War:  A History of World War I in the Words of the Men and Women Who Were There.  Guilford, CN:  The Lyons Press, 2002.

Arthur, Max.  The Faces of World War I:  the Great War in Words and Pictures.  London:  Cassell Illustrated, 2007.

Atkinson, Diane.  Elsie and Mairi Go to War:  Two Extraordinary Women on the Western Front.  New York:  Pegasus Books, 2010.

Doyle, Peter.  British Postcards of the First World War.  Oxford:  Shire Publications, 2010.

Groom, Winston.  A Storm in Flanders.  New York:  Atlantic Monthly Press, 2002.

Hartcup, Guy.  The War of Invention:  Scientific Developments, 1914-18.  London:  Brassey’s Defence Publishers, Ltd., 1988

McDonald, Lyn.  1914-1918 Voices & Images of the Great War.  London:  Michael Joseph Ltd., 1988.

Palmer, Svetlana and Sarah Wallis, Editors.  Intimate Voices from the First World War.  New York:  William Morrow/Harper Collins Publishers, Inc., 2003, and London: Simon and Schuster, 2003.

Neil R Storey.  Women in the First World War.  Oxford:  Shire Publications, 2010.