By KIERAN FINNANE
Among the many activities that Alice’s snap lockdown brought to a halt on Wednesday was the restoration of the Robert Czako mural that graces St Mary’s chapel on the south Stuart Highway.
Few people would know of its existence if it weren’t for Heritage Week and local historian Jose Petrick OAM. In 2009 I used the word “indefatigable” to describe her. What can I say now, more than a decade later when this living treasure has reached 97 years of age and remains on the case, keeping the flame burning for preservation of this unique work?
Over the intervening years, she has galvanised the interest of experts and the community, been instrumental in attracting funding, and now has marshalled the volunteers, and, until lockdown, ministered to them, with soups and cups of tea.
“We’re doing it for Jose,” said conservator Lisa Nolan, notwithstanding her professional commitment to the job.
Jose Petrick on site talking with volunteer Peter Davison. Photo Erwin Chlanda.
Seconded from Museums and Art Galleries of the Northern Territory (MAGNT), Ms Nolan has supervised the painstaking restoration work, together with conservator Isabelle Waters, ex-Alice now living in Adelaide where she works for Artlab Australia.
Mrs Petrick speaks of the meticulous task of removing “all the fly specks and minute cobwebs”.
Another issue is the brown water stains. With the mural painted on masonite fixed directly onto the brickwork, these long drip marks were apparently incurred during heavy downpours throughout 1974.
Painted by Hungarian-born and trained Czako in 1958, the mural was by then 16 years old. It has never been professionally cleaned, so today “we’re talking 63 years of dirt,” says Ms Nolan.
The cleaning is done not section by section, as we amateurs might imagine, but colour by colour, and there are no large single-colour expanses. Representing the vast span of the Christian story across six metres by three, the painting is dynamically intricate. Work may be on just one roughly five square centimetre area at a time.
The mural pre-restoration. Photo supplied.
The volunteers were shown how to make swabs, using skewers and a soft cotton material, to apply an aqueous solution – a mixture of triammonium citrate with water. That is then cleaned off with second swab, using mineral water, “making sure we don’t cause any further damage as we go”, says Ms Nolan.
What of its future? Will this unique flowering of European modernism and intense religious feeling in our small desert town stay where it is – out of sight, out of mind for most of the year?
That is very much the intention, says Ms Nolan. Czako, who was only in Alice Springs for three months, painted it to inspire the children living at St Mary’s at the time. Its heritage value – actively supported by the Anglican diocese, owner of the property, and present day Rector Brian Jeffries, is best expressed in its original context – and the building is now very secure, thanks to a previous grant, with regular inspections.
Part of the current restoration effort – supported by a NT Heritage Grant, the National Trust and MAGNT (with its in kind contribution of Ms Nolan plus materials and equipment ) – will see an interpretative panel placed outside the building for the interest of casual visitors. As well, Mrs Petrick’s book on Czako, the mural and St Mary’s, will be republished with new images by a professional photographer.
But what of a future guardian to fill Mrs Petrick’s shoes when that day comes? Those involved this renewed drive to preserve the mural for future generations are hoping that someone will be inspired to come forward, to keep the flame alive.
Meanwhile, it is hoped that work will continue once the lockdown is lifted.
Photo at top by Erwin Chlanda: Volunteers Rosemary Aiken (left) and Marg Lawrence at work.
Last updated 2 July 2021 1.28pm.