Funds sought to preserve Graycliff mural


By TOM BUCKHAM News Staff Reporter4/7/2002


ROBERT KIRKHAM/Buffalo NewsPeter K. Gessner is racing the clock to find money to rescue Joseph Slawinski's sgraffito mural of St. Joseph Calasanctius.

With time running out, fund raising has slowed to a crawl in the push to save the massive cement mural of St. Joseph Calasanctius on a building adjacent to Graycliff, the historic Frank Lloyd Wright house in Derby.

Joseph Slawinski's sgraffito depiction of the great educator, surrounded by eager-to-learn poor children, is one of the first things visitors see as they approach the main house from Lake Shore Road. The estate will reopen for tours April 13.

But the two-story outbuilding, which went up long after Wright designed Graycliff for Buffalo executive Darwin D. and Isabelle Martin in the 1920s, is to be razed next fall as part of a plan to return the estate to its original condition.


The Polish Arts Club of Buffalo wants to remove the 12-by-18-foot mural, restore it and reinstall it in the vestibule of Assumption Catholic Church on Amherst Street, which houses a number of other Slawinski works.

By fall, the organization had collected more than $70,000 of the needed $110,000. Then came the September terrorist attacks. A $26,000 city grant secured by North Council Member Joseph Golombek vanished in the budget chaos.

"For all intents and purposes, that money is gone," said Peter K. Gessner, Polish Arts Club president. "We're back to about $47,000."

When the organization was approached about taking on the mural's preservation, Gessner had misgivings.

"We were reluctant. After all, we're just a club," he said.

But the more he learned about Slawinski, the more convinced he became that the man's legacy - and this specific piece - are worth preserving.

The artist came to Buffalo from Poland on a visitor's visa in 1961, returned in 1964, and over nearly two decades, until his death in 1983, turned out a remarkable quantity and variety of works. A Slawinski Web site put up by the Arts Club lists nearly 30 in Western New York alone. Others are in Philadelphia, Chicago and Rome, among other places.

Slawinski worked in many media, including fresco, hammered copper, scratched tempera and wrought iron. But his favorite was sgraffito, a subtractive technique involving two or more layers of cement that are etched while wet.

Slawinski extended the technique to four layers of colored cement, which yielded eye-catching art but was extremely labor-intensive.

"I didn't know him, but people who did say he often slept at the site and worked through the night," Gessner said.

Its size and four colors - black, red, off-white and yellow - make the Graycliff mural, which Slawinski created in 1967 to honor the 350th anniversary of the Piarist Fathers, "unique in this country," Gessner said.

It is the triumph of a mature artist "who has merged his technical skills with his vision," said Ted Pietrzak, executive director of the Burchfield-Penney Art Center.

The mural is on the upper outside wall of a building erected by the Piarists, who occupied Graycliff for 48 years, as a dormitory for children who fled the 1956 Hungarian Revolution. The two-story concrete block structure later became a school and then a day care center.

Because it is not an original feature of the site, the building stands in the way of the $3.5 million restoration undertaken by the Graycliff Conservancy after it purchased the nine-acre estate from the Piarists three years ago. The wrecking ball will move in this autumn whether or not the mural has been removed.

Gessner has approached Erie County, area state legislators, foundations and other potential funding sources. The heavy artwork would be lowered by crane by International Chimney Corp. and repaired by McKay Lodge Fine Arts Laboratory of Oberlin, Ohio, before reinstallation in the vestibule of Assumption Church, which already has some of the first works Slawinski created here.

"I'm pulling out all the stops, but it's a tough sell," Gessner said.

With the clock ticking and little money coming in, he added, "there are two options: one, we start the project and hope we get the money as we go along; two, we simply can't do it."



In the Buffalo News article the reporter, Tom Buchham, menitons the Slawinski website put up by the Polish Arts Club. Its address is - and the images of some of Slawinski's artwork take the breath away. He was indeed a remarkable artist.( Peter Gessner, President)