by Kevin Di Camillo
After World War II, a Polish artist named professor Józef Sławiński, who had lived under both the Nazi and Soviet regimes, successfully emigrated to the United States. He had many strikes against him. He was poor, spoke little English, had few contacts(and fewer prospects), and specialized in an art form that almost no one knew anything about, let alone appreciated: sgraffito. But he also had an implacable and unshakeable Catholic faith that pervaded almost all his artwork.
Ever ancient, ever new
Making his home and studio on the banks of the Upper Niagara River in Niagara Falls, New York, Sławiński (1905–1983) proceeded to reintroduce this ancient art form (which reputedly goes back to the time of the Etruscans) to western New York, in particular, and the United States, in general. Sławiński, who had studied art in prewar Italy, pioneered the use of additional colors (other than the traditional black and white) in sgraffito.
First he would do a full-length design, called a “cartoon,” in the same proportions as the mural he planned to create. He would then trace the outline of the painting on heavy transparent paper. After this, the paper was perforated and laid over the mural area, which had been previously prepared and layered with four coats of pigmented cement: black, red, yellow, and silver gray. A fine charcoal dust was then patterned over the paper, filtering through the perforations and leaving an outline for the artist to scratch or dig out with a chisel-like tool until reaching the desired color. If this sounds like a tremendous lot of work, it is! Unlike paintings or even painted frescoes, sgraffito is a combination of sculpting (with the chisel) and then painstakingly achieving the right color through repeated scraping and scratching. But the final effect of a sgraffito mural is truly unique: The art, which is so singular and for the most part unknown, looks both antique and at the same time “modern” — in the words of St. Augustine, “ever ancient, ever new.”
This rare art form is also permanent: It is carved into concrete or cement, making it extraordinarily heavy and stable. Still, that hasn’t prevented some of Sławiński’s work from being moved about: The Barnabite Fathers, who in 1975 commissioned his Peace Mural altarpiece (which is based on the Book of Revelation) at the Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima in Lewiston, New York, removed it from the altar to the ambulatory so that pilgrims could get closer to it for a better look.
Another colossal work of St. Joseph Calasanctius, which was originally done for the Piarist Fathers’ Graycliffe Manor in Derby, New York, was moved — using a massive crane and a flatbed truck — to the north wall of E.H. Butler Library at Buffalo State, the State University of New York, where the professor’s widow, Wanda Sławiński, is a librarian. Stan Nowak first met professor Sławiński in the spring of 1969 when the artist was working on the Commodore Perry mural at the West Hertel Middle School in Buffalo, New York. He saw, up close and personal, the professor produce some of his most outstanding work. “It was an honor to see him work, to see how long and lovingly he worked on this piece — it was a real learning experience, too!”
What is sgraffito?
Sgraffito is a form of mural decoration which predates even formal architecture itself. The term is Italian and literally means “to scratch” or, more properly, “cut” or “carve.” The art was originally said to have been employed to add a modicum of beauty to the Etruscan tombs and later to the ancient Christian catacombs of Rome, using only two “colors”: black and white.
A sgraffito mural begins with a rough plaster undercoat and then is followed by thin plaster layers, each stained with a different lime-fast color so it won’t run. The plaster is then “cut” or engraved with special knives and gouged at different levels to expose the different colors underneath. Finally, the surface of the final sgraffito piece is often enriched with extra texturing (as opposed to the polishing found in traditional mosaics and frescoes). Per professor Józef Sławiński’s’s widow, Wanda: “The best cement — river sand, lime, and water — are used. Then the four layers of pigmented cement have to be of a peculiar consistency that is spreadable, yet won’t ‘run.’ Then, when it was time for incising, it had to be soft enough to cut — but not too soft — or the next layer in the design would be compromised.”
Sgraffito enjoyed a resurgence of sorts in the Middle Ages, especially in 13th-century Germany and Poland. Bruce Fisher, author of Border Land: Essays from the US-Canadian Divide (Excelsior Editions, 2012) and a sgraffito expert, notes that “the sgraffito technique is a type of fresco that has not enjoyed the same understanding as ‘classic’ fresco. It is, to a degree, obsolete, perhaps because it is so difficult. Józef Sławiński, however, revived this ancient form and created a body of work that remains timeless and singular.” Thomas Gordon Smith, a professor emeritus of the University of Notre Dame’s School of Architecture, notes that he “admires that unique technique of ‘scratching’ through layers of different colored plasters. Some churches in the Czech Republic [still] have excellent examples, as well as many other places” in Eastern Europe.
‘ARTWORK TO BE PROUD OF’
The final results in a work of sgraffito are astonishing: The colors are bright, sometimes almost garish, like an early Henri Matisse in his Fauve period. And yet at the same time, the dark black outlining recalls the modern master Catholic artist Georges Rouault, who used the concept of “stained-glass” blocking to “color in” his work. But Sławiński was an original, working in a form that had fallen into desuetude. He reified it and made it his own. By the time of his death, he had given the Niagara Frontier its own artwork to be proud of. Indeed, for a time fans of his work could actually take a bus trip from Buffalo to Youngstown, New York (45 miles away), to see all of the professor’s murals and artwork.
In addition to the enormous Basilica of the National Shrine of Our Lady of Fatima, Sławiński also renovated the Franciscan Sisters of Stella Niagara Chapel on the Lower Niagara River. In one of those “being-in-the-right-place-at-the-right-time” moments, Sławiński suddenly found himself, if not in demand, at least constantly working due to the implementation of Vatican II church décor changes.
The entire chapel was redone in sgraffito, including the Stations of the Cross, the altarpiece (of the Last Supper), and the sanctuary murals. The Franciscan sisters also asked Sławiński to redecorate their original tiny chapel that sits right at the foot of the Niagara River. It was to be dedicated to St. John the Baptist and St. John the Evangelist. However, while Sławiński was working on it, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. Sławiński, who like his fellow Pole Karol Wojtyla (the future St. John Paul II) was a man who loved peace, asked for and received permission to add two other men named “John” to the tiny chapel: sgraffito murals of (now) St. John XXIII, who had at the time in 1963 recently released his masterpiece papal encyclical Pacem in Terris (Peace on Earth), and Kennedy.
However, it wasn’t just the Franciscan sisters who were beneficiaries of Sławiński’s sgraffito: The Friars Minor of Saint Francis of Athol Springs, New York ( just south of Buffalo) also commissioned him to renovate their chapel in accordance with the new dictates of the Second Vatican Council. One of the unique features here is that Sławiński included a man who was a martyr but would not be canonized for another 20 years: Maximilian Maria Kolbe, OFM Conv. Sławiński was always moved by the story of how this Pole literally gave his life up so that a fellow Auschwitz prisoner could live — and memorialized him on the banks of Lake Erie, half a world away.
PRECISE ARTISTIC WORK
Sgraffito is both art and science. Measurements have to be millimeter-precise or an entire section of a mural can literally fall off if the artist carves too hard or too deep. Sławiński admired science in general (it is a recurrent theme in many of his murals) and one scientist in particular: the polyglot and polymath Nicolaus Copernicus (1473–1543). Copernicus is best remembered as the man who finally got the world to agree that the earth revolved around the sun (not the other way around), but he was also an ardent Catholic, a proud Pole, a Franciscan tertiary, and a canon of the Frombork Cathedral in Poland.
Sławiński appreciated the fact that Copernicus had no difficulty marrying his faith with cutting-edge science and learning. Villa Maria College, another Catholic institute of learning in the Buffalo/ Niagara Falls area, benefited from Sławiński’s sgraffito representations, not only of the Franciscan Copernicus, but also the great composer (and naturally fellow-Pole) Frédéric Chopin. But perhaps Sławiński’s most fully realized work — and certainly his biggest undertaking — was Buffalo’s Church of the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary. Beginning in 1963, Sławiński began the painstaking and complete renovation of this 1888 Romanesque church. This was a bit of a match made in heaven, as Assumption parish had always been the pride of Polish Buffalo. A total of 12 sgraffito murals, most of them vignettes from the life of the Blessed Virgin Mary, now adorn this Polish parish.
Since his death in 1983, Sławiński’s work continues to be viewed and venerated by both the faithful (hundreds of thousands of pilgrims visit the Fatima shrine each year) and those curious about an artistic expression they’d never heard of nor seen before: the ancient art of sgraffito.