Raised in Pennsylvania, Karen Mocker Dabson grew up attending weddings and funerals at St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church. “My great-aunts and -uncles numbered among the 50,000 Croatians that lived and worked in the many small towns surrounding Millvale, and had helped found and build the church,” she says.
As a child’s attention is often held more by the surroundings than an event, Dabson spent a lot of time viewing the extensive church murals the Croatian-born painter Maxo Vanka was commissioned to paint in 1937 and 1941. “Back then, the murals seemed dark and menacing as faces loomed from the walls, angry and scary in their power, but unappreciated as art in my younger days,” she says.
Nevertheless, something took root. After raising her family, a successful career leading a nonprofit, and moving her community development consulting business to Columbia, Dabson found her heart returning to art and inspiration. The support she found in Columbia encouraged her to follow her passion. She says, “[Columbia] seems to be a place where people are hungry to support writing and writers. I don’t think that is something that happens everywhere.”
She had forgotten about the little church and the murals within until she was invited to hear her docent cousin discuss the murals. Her expectations were low as she approached the unassuming, yellow brick church and its struggling surrounding neighborhood. Instead of meeting expectations, the church was the fire-starter for her creativity.
“Awestruck, gob-smacked, overwhelmed — these descriptors don’t go deep enough to describe what my feelings were when I first glimpsed the church’s interior,” she says. “On every square inch of wall and ceiling, murals … competed for my attention.”
There was something in the content that struck a key as well. Dabson spent years working to assist those struggling for a better life. “I was attracted to the themes depicted in Maxo Vanka’s work,” she says. “Most if not all [of the murals were] a statement reflecting the social conditions of the time, but with themes that are still extraordinarily relevant today: poverty, labor abuses, war.”
A combination of the murals of Maxo Vanka, a longstanding use of writing as a creative release, and a love of travel and research led Dabson to take the plunge into novel work, writing The Muralist’s Ghost. Research was a significant part of the process. Dabson proceeded with a series of interviews with individuals who knew Vanka.
“Most exciting, I interviewed two of his three granddaughters who remembered him,” she says. Dabson’s admiration for Vanka only grew as she learned of his kindness, his gentle nature and his investment in social justice. She became committed to portraying him accurately, even though her work was fiction.
She utilized tales of the church being haunted, knowledge of the long hours Maxo Vanka worked on his art and the reality of a friendship formed while he worked at the church, to create a solid, realistic base for her novel. “He and the priest who had hired him for the job, Father Albert Žagar, would become fast and lifelong friends,” she says.
Extending her research beyond the small church in Millvale, Dabson and her husband visited Vanka’s native Croatia. “We visited the beautiful Zagorje hills just north of Zagreb, where his early years were spent with an adoptive family, and then old and new Zagreb, where he painted and taught painting,” she says. They ended their travels on the island of Korcula at his family home, now turned gallery. A private tour further inspired Dabson, as she learned more of Vanka’s work and envisioned his home life.
Dabson worked on The Muralist’s Ghost for about four years. It was easy to get lost in the research, and then she also had a fictional side of the story to develop. With a graceful interweaving of fiction and nonfiction, she created a rich tale of suspense, mystery and introspection.
The Muralist’s Ghost earned the Walter Williams Award, second place, in 2015. This Missouri Writers Guild founder’s prize awards recognition in research or high literary quality.
Dabson is currently working on her second novel, Tarentum.