Niagara Gazette

December 21, 2012

Saving the "Maid of the Mist" sgrafitto

By Michele Deluca

Niagara Gazette — The maiden, in all her glory, can be seen from Buffalo Avenue, through a break in a set of evergreen hedges.

With her flowing hair and feather plumage, her image is familiar to many of the locals who know her as the Maid of the Mist — heroine of the native American tale. For most local school kids, her story is as familiar as the internationally known tourist destination where her legend began.

The iconic story began centuries ago when a beautiful young Native American woman was said to have chosen death over an arranged marriage. She dove into the falls to end her life. 

Just around the corner from her watery date with destiny, the maiden’s leap is frozen in time in an unusual rendering hung in a private backyard, home to the widow of the Polish artist who created her. The work, called a sgraffito, was created by Jozef Slawinski, and is one of about 20 locations in the region that a retired college professor has devoted his life to saving and — in the maiden’s case — restoring and relocating.

Besides the sgraffitos simple art deco depictions, the style of artistry is unique in the world, and particularly to the United States.

“There are no other four-color sgraffitos in this country,” explained Dr. Peter Gessner, the retired University at Buffalo professor behind the restoration project.  

Gessner’s idea is to follow the success of tourist-beloved Frank Lloyd Wright structures in the region, which have drawn visitors from around the world. He wants to create a trail of the Slawinski sgraffitos, which are located at a variety of locations from Buffalo State College to Stella Niagara and the Fatima Shrine in Lewiston.

“Imagine if you had a sgraffito trail,” he said recently after a quick winter showing of the Maid of the Mist sgraffito to a backyard visitor. 

Gessner said that Slawinski was a Polish artist who was fascinated by frescos, an Italian technique of mural painting on fresh plaster. He eventually moved to the Buffalo area and then to Niagara Falls at the invitation of Mayor E. Dent Lackey, Gessner said.

By then Slawinski was painting in sgraffito, a style of painting on fresh cement. But his technique was unique in that he layered the colors by pouring each layer of a single color of cement over the gray cement, and then carved his images in the still wet but hardening canvas.

From his depiction of Commodore Perry at Black Rock at West Hertel Academy to his Scenes from the Life of the Blessed Virgin at Assumption Church in Buffalo, to his Peace Mural at Our Lady of Fatima Shrine, Slawinski’s work is noticeable for its vivid imagery and simplicity.

“He wanted to create art that people understood,” Gessner said. “There’s no great mystery to his art. You see what you need to see.”

The artist, who died in 1983, has been compared to Mexican muralist Diego Rivera, noted Gessner.

And, given the rapidity in which cement hardens, the artist was obsessed with the need for speed in completing every piece.

“I know someone who was there with him when he was making (the Admiral Perry mural). He had sleeping bags beneath the mural and when he was too tired to work he would sleep right there.” 

The professor, who is 82, has been committed to gathering and protecting the artist’s work since he was president of the Polish Arts Club of Buffalo in the early 1980s when someone asked him to arrange a presentation about Slawinski.

Shortly thereafter, he was leading efforts to raise money for a complicated move of a heavy Slawinski work from Frank Lloyd Wright’s Graycliff Estate in Derby to the exterior of Butler Library at Buffalo State College. Currently, he wants to find a way to restore and relocate the Maid of the Mist. He anticipates the project would cost about $40,000.

When those plans move forward, he will begin pulling the strings to weave a trail together, so that people from around the world can come to visit the unique and colorful murals.

Slawinski’s artworks grace many area public buildings, schools, churches and hospitals— where Gessner worries changes in leadership and short institutional memory could endanger the murals.

The existence of a Slawinski Art Trail, he believes, would immediately raise the artist’s profile and thereby safeguard the survival of his work.

The passing of time doesn’t worry Gessner, but he is determined to make progress in bringing Slawkinski the notoriety he feels the artist deserves. “It has to be done while there is someone who is cognizant and interesting in doing it,” he said. He’s in his early 80s but doesn’t plan to quite any time soon. “I’m still here and I’m happy to do this.” In the meanwhile, the maiden waits, her face and story frozen in time while her colors continue to fade, in a backyard on Buffalo Avenue.

To contact Dr. Peter Gessner about his efforts to save the sgrafitto, call 634-5053.