Niagara Frontier Artwork Restoration: The Maid of the Mist by Peter K. Gessner
For a number of years, Niagara Falls was the home of Joseph Slawinski, a gifted Polish
artist. His works, particularly those in his preferred art medium - the sgraffito grace many public buildings on the Niagara Frontier.
One of the most fascinating of his works, however, stands free in the open. Erected in 1973, 6 feet high and 20 wide, it is a tribute to Niagara Fails. It portrays the Maid of the Mist, rising from her watery grave to meet the sun and a new life. It stands in the garden at I 25 Buffalo Avenue, a house rising above an expanse of lawn on one's left as one approaches the Niagara Rapids Bridge along 1st Avenue. The house, once the artist's studio, is now the home of his widow.
Ancient in its origin. sgraffito is a subtractive technique that involves layering cement of various colors on a wall surface and incising the layers of the still fresh pigmented cement to create an image. Slawinski, who had studied in Italy, excelled in this technique, using four layers of concrete where others had used two. In Niagara County, Slawinski created sgraffito murals at Our Lady of Fatima shrine and in the chapel at Stella Niagara. While he was working on the chapel's murals, John Kennedy was shot in Dulles. Deeply affected by that event, he erected a Kennedy Memorial down on the escarpment across the road from Stella Niagara. Many more Mr. SlawinskFs works are to be found in Erie County, in schools, churches, even in the office of Buffalo's Mayor.
By their very nature, sgraffitos are, to a degree, three dimensional. In our climate, this exposes them, if they are in the open, to damage induced by freezing-thawing cycles. Although the Maid of the Mist sgraffito has withstood the ravages of the weather reasonably well, it has suffered some damage. To be preserved it must be moved indoors. The artist's widow. Mrs. Wanda Slawinska, cognizant of these facts, has agreed to the sgraffito being moved. Recently, the Niagara Polish Cultural and Historical Society and the Polish Arts Club of Buffalo have formed a Coalition whose goal is the preservation of the sgraffito.
The Polish Arts Club of Buffalo is also involved in trying to preserve a Slawinski sgraffito in Erie County where the famed architect, Frank Lloyd Wright, built Graycliff, a summer residence for Mr. and Mrs. Martin. down on the lakeshore. In the 1950s that property was sold to a group of Piarist Fathers who erected an additional structure on the site and commissioned Mr. Slawinski to create a 12x18 foot sgraffito of St. Calasanctius on one of its exterior walls. The property was recently acquired by the Grayciff Conservancy with the aim of restoring Wright's building to its original condition. In the process, the additional building must come down. The sgraffito, which has been damaged by the weather, must be moved if it is to be saved. Buffalo Councilman Joseph Golombek and the Church of the Assumption in North Buffalo are very interested in haying the sgrafflto restored and moved to the church. As a first step, a conservator that specializes in this type of project must be brought to determine how, and at what cost, this could be done. Hopefully the same person could also examine and give estimates on the mov ing and restoration of the Maid of the Mist sgraffito.
Readers who wish to obtain additional information about the mural and its creator, or who would like to support the Coalition's goal and be on its mailing list should write to the author at 4712 Brentwood Drive, Willlamsville, NY 14221 (email:firstname.lastname@example.org) or call 716-634-5053.
Reprinted from the Spring 2000 issue of pARTners, a publication of the Niagara Council of the Arts