Refugee artists create meaningful murals

In July, a family of refugee artists from Slovakia arrived at St. Philip Benizi Church in Fullerton. They offered to paint murals at the church free of charge, and what started with one mural blossomed into several.

Peter and Pal Mester in front of a newly-painted mural. Photo by Jesse La Tour.

The artists are Peter and Pal Mester. Their large works appear around the world, including at USC, Cambridge University in England, Regensburg University in Germany, town halls in Wimereux, France and Donau, Germany, and Brno University in the Czech Republic.

The Mesters’ long journey to Fullerton, in a way, started back in the 1930s, when a family friend named Hana (also called Lea) lived here in Fullerton with her parents who were chemists conducting geochemical assays for the local petroleum industry.

In the mid 1930s, Hana’s parents returned to Slovakia and set up a laboratory there. However, in 1939, under the influence of Hitler in Germany, Slovakia entered a period of fascism and brutal repression, under Jozef Tiso. The fascists murdered Hana’s parents, and confiscated their laboratory, leaving Hana an orphan.

The Mesters’ grandmother and a friend named Ladislav Reitman (father of filmmaker Ivan Reitman, who lived in the same town as the Mesters) helped Hana to get to an orphanage in Budapest run by a protestant priest named Gabor Sztehlo, who protected thousands of children from being killed during the fascist regime.

When Hana was in the orphanage, she became very useful in protecting the Jewish kids who were being hidden there. Whenever the authorities came to visit the orphanage, she would sing and perform German catholic hymns, which helped to convince the authorities there were no Jews present.

After the war, Hana became an art student of Peter Mester’s mother and a good friend of the family. From the 1960s on, Hana and Peter worked together in communist Czechoslovakia. She would help him and other artists find work.

In the 1990s, after the fall of communism, Peter and Hana won the commission to make the curtain for the new Slovak National Theater.

According to Peter, their problems began when a government minister (who was allegedly a neo-fascist) told them to dedicate the curtain to Jozef Tiso. Hana, of course, refused to do this, as Tiso was the leader responsible for her parents’ death.

Sometime later, Hana was murdered.

Not long after that, some men attempted to murder Peter’s wife by burying her alive. Luckily, neighbors who had come to visit scared off the would-be murderers. Peter and Pal believe a local police commissioner was responsible for the murder and attempted murder. Hana’s killer was never brought to justice.

Seeking justice, they wrote to the American embassy, the Canadian embassy, the Israeli embassy, the European Commission for Organized Crime, human rights organizations, all to no avail.

In the post-communist era, Slovakia didn’t exactly go back to being fascist, but many of its leaders were “populists” or “nationalists,” some with ties to the old fascist regime.

In recent years, a fair number of Slovakian journalists, police officials, judges, and artists have been murdered.

Fearing for their lives, the Mesters fled Slovakia and became refugees.

In 2014, the Mesters arrived in the United States and applied for asylum. They have all their papers in order and are still waiting for their asylum claim to be resolved.

“They did apply for refugee status. It’s been seven years,” Father Dennis Kriz, OSM of St. Philip Benizi Church said. “When they began their work at the Parish, we had them go through the Diocese’s Safe Environment program. They were fingerprinted, and their documents checked out. They have work permits here. They have all the documents. The problem is that the refugee system here is utterly broken.”

The large murals painted by the Mesters at St. Philip Benizi were dedicated on December 20, in a ceremony officiated by Bishop Kevin Vann, and attended by some 100 parishioners and local leaders including State Assemblymember Sharon Quirk Silva and Fullerton Mayor Fred Jung.

The artists paint in a modern baroque style.

The first mural that Father Dennis asked them to paint was of Mary and the Seven Holy Founders of the Servite Order plus Saint Juliana on the side of St. Philip Benizi’s old school building. Next, the artists painted a cycle of St. Philip Benizi’s entire life. The final mural (as yet) to be painted by the artists, is a portrayal the Resurrection, borne of the artists’ own story.

A portion of the mural cycle depicting the life of St. Philip Benizi. Photo by Jesse La Tour.

Father Dennis notes, “Yes, sometimes life imitates art, and art is inspired by life experience.”