Unique artistic gem gets speck-by-speck clean

A hidden art gem in the heart of Australia has been restored to its former brilliance by the meticulous work of a group of volunteers led by 97-year-old José Petrick, a member of the Anglican Church of the Ascension in Alice Springs.

The extraordinary mural of biblical scenes was painted by Hungarian artist Robert Czakó in the 1950s behind the altar of Alice Springs’ St Mary’s Chapel, a former hostel for Indigenous children, owned by the Anglican Church.

Czakó, an emigré from postwar Europe, was in Alice Springs for just three months, during which time he painted the mural to inspire the children who were living at St Mary’s at that time.

Having arrived in Alice Springs during an outback adventure in 1958, Czakó was painting a Todd River landscape near the Heavitree Gap Causway when Captain Colin Steep, Superintendent of St Mary’s Chapel, noticed him and stopped to admire the picture. Little did Steep know that Czakó was a distinguished artist adept in creating stained glass windows.

Robert Czakó

After prayers in chapel one evening, Czakó was excited and said he had visualised a large mural on the chapel wall behind the altar. The effect would be like “throwing a number of pictures all over the wall”.

Painted over six weeks, probably in a mixture of oils and housepaint, the mural contains 22 intricately interlocking scenes of life and death. There are pictures of the Nativity, Jesus in the Temple, Gethsemane, Pilate washing his hands, Christ carrying the cross, the Ascension and Pentecost as well as several scenes from Book of Revelation. But as well as scenes of biblical characters, the mural also depicts bodies and skeletons, St Michael, St Joan, St George, St Francis along with people of many different nationalities and even some of St Mary’s staff. The dynamically intricate work measures 6 metres by 3 metres.

“The screen is a kaleidoscope of flowing lines, curves and folds of garments, areas of light, shade and shadows, angry faces and violent gestures and also gentleness, radiance and grace,” José writes in a 1998 book chronicling the history of the mural which is being republished with new images.

“Some figures are painted in detail while others are impressionistic. The mural is best viewed from about five metres away, the distance to the front rows of the congregation.”

José, a local historian and community advocate, began campaigning for the restoration of the mural more than 20 years ago.

José was an English nurse who came to the Northern Territory in 1951 to be a governess on a station 300km northeast of Alice Springs. After marrying nearby station owner Martyn Petrick they moved to a station near Barrow Creek (notorious for being the place where British backpacker Peter Falconio is believed to have been murdered.) After Martyn’s death in 1974, José moved to Alice Springs and became a journalist with the Centralian Advocate for which she wrote weekly features identifying the town’s 100 streets named after Central Australian pioneers.

Volunteers and supporters of the Robert Czakó mural: José Petrick is third from left, front row,

Lisa Nolan, a paintings conservator at the Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory (MAGNT), has letters on file from José dating back to 1998. She was concerned about brown streaks on the precious mural from dirty rainwater leaking in from the ceiling over the decades since the 1970s.

At last, in honour of José’s indefatigable efforts, MAGNT released Nolan (with fellow art conservator Isabelle Waters) to give her time to teach a team of volunteers how to clean the mural during one freezing week in winter, (28 June-6 July), evading snap Covid lockdowns. With scaffolding and trestles set up by a Community Corrections work crew, the team used swabs containing a mixture of triammonium citrate and filtered water to painstakingly clean the mural, colour by colour, panel by panel.

“It’s a very light clean and it’s not very harsh on the paint. We wanted to use something that would lift the dirt, but also keep the artwork intact and not take anything else off,” says Nolan.

José kept the team’s spirits up during the frigid weather with cups of tea, soup and sandwiches.

“She is absolutely amazing and makes the best sandwiches and morning tea,” says Nolan fondly. “Because she worked on a station, she’d always have the pot hot, you know, ready to go.”

The project was funded jointly by a Northern Territory Heritage grant and the National Trust, but the modest $10,000 budget only covered the aqueous clean and the placing of an interpretive panel outside the building for the interest of visitors.

“There’s more work to be done,” says Nolan. “The recommendations we put in the report were a fire warning system, exterior block wall behind the mural, sealing the gaps between the mural and the cornices, cleaning the dust coming through from the ceiling, and refitting of some of the loose Masonite.”

Following the recent 100mm downpour in Alice Springs, heritage architect Domenico Pecorari has advised on extending the roof flashing to prevent further leaks.

These days, the chapel is used once a month by an ecumenical group led by young people called Streams in the Desert and is also used by the Anglican Diocese for special events.

In honour of its ceremonial history, some of the splashes of wax that dripped from candles in previous eras have been left, although the conservators have asked the church not to use candles anymore.

“I think it’s important to keep some of these little accretions to remind us the chapel was used for,” says Nolan.

“History is so important and intrinsic to the work as well. It was a church before the work was painted there and, Czakó really appreciated this little community with all the children and he wanted to give them something to look at while they were doing their Bible study.”

“It’s just an amazing gem to have in the heart of Australia.” – Lisa Nolan

Artistically, Nolan believes it’s “just an amazing gem to have in the heart of Australia.”

“I really like the effect, the way it’s quite flat, but it shimmers. You can see all these flat patches and when you stand back, you can really understand that it’s got that ’50s European influence – Modernism –  but also relating to Renaissance because there’s so much going on in the work. And then it’s quite naive as well. There’s a bit of abstraction in a way. It’s a real mixture,” she says.

“And its historical value and the value to the church is quite phenomenal. I think the church can be very proud that they’ve looked after it all these years and had the foresight to care for it and understand its value and importance. And hopefully, in the future, there’ll be funding to continue to look after it.”

With the mural protected on the NT Heritage Register, it’s hoped that many more Australians will come to appreciate this unique work of art along with the rather marvellous way it came about.

As Jose’s book recounts, after finishing the mural, Czakó built a raft which took him to Borroloola, a small isolated community on the MacArthur River near the Gulf of Carpentaria, where he continued to paint, particularly cloud scenes.

Later he returned to Sydney, where he designed and built stained glass treasures, notably the Fourteen Stations of the Cross for St Peter Julian’s Church in Sydney. He died in his sleep from a heart condition in 1965.