TRAF Blog Post: Squonk Opera’s ‘Pneumatica’


Originally posted at http://www.3riversartsfest.org/2014/06/squonk-opera-returns-to-the-festival

For over twenty years, Squonk Opera has been entertaining Pittsburgh with their eccentric blend of music and performance art. This year Squonk returns to the Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival with their new show titled ‘Pneumatica.’

Lady Pneumatica will loom large above the crowd at Point State Park from June 13–15. This newly created icon is the focal point of the show – she embodies the spirit of Squonk’s themes of windpower, and sustainable energy. Steve O’Hearn – the artistic director and co-founder of Squonk Opera – says, “We knew we wanted to do a large scale icon…we wanted to create a personification of air.” This goddess of air stands tall, her eyes closed, her mind spinning wind turbines. Her arms are inflatable tubes, her lungs an accordion that will breathe music, and her body is the stage where the members of Squonk will perform. Lady Pneumatica is the driving force behind the show, an ever-present reminder of the power of air and wind.

The word ‘pneuma’ means air, breath, or spirit. The title of the show comes from an ancient text written by Heron of Alexandra – who created the first pneumatics. Air is used to power different movements of the set and brings to life many of the playful visuals that Squonk is well known for. Inflatable balls hovering on airstreams, fans that rise up behind the head of Lady Pneumatica like an aurora haloing her head. Air also powers many of the instruments utilized in the show; an electric bagpipe, a simple flute and an instrument entirely of Squonk’s own invention: the ‘lung-ccordian’ that inflates below the head of the icon to produce remarkable sound and gives life to the icon through the breath of air and sound.

Steve O’Hearn speaks to the idea of utilizing air and wind in their newest outdoor show. “We just played with the idea of being outside and embracing the fact that we are out there in the air. We’re also very interested in using new pneumatic technologies and materials; inflatables and blowers and pneumatic cylinders, in different ways.” Some of these pneumatic technologies will be used to create an interactive tactile experience for the audience.

The issue of sustainable energy is an underlying theme for this particular show. “It seemed very timely because of the issues of sustainable technology,” Steve says. “From touring outdoor shows you are aware every second of what the wind is, how high it is going to be…you’re always kind of looking on the horizon. There is an awareness of it and the timeliness of wind power and the issue of air being a precious resource.”

After their premiere at this year’s Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival, Squonk will take ‘Pneumatica’ on the road. They are planning to play small shows around Pittsburgh throughout the summer and the fall. Steve says, “We love doing work that’s accessible and right out in the public space. As often as possible, we stage the shows for free, and do school shows as well.” Squonk has launched a kickstarter for ‘Pneumatica’ in order to fund their upcoming tour and keep it free to the public.

For a behind the scenes look at ‘Pneumatica’ you can visit their Kickstarter page where you can make a donation.


A year ago I wrote an essay for a class. The essay was a response to the book  Blue Nights by Joan Didion. A meditation on memory and how relationships shape memory and how memory shapes our relationships. The essay was about my best friends, written shortly after I discovered some frightening news about their health. I went on to win an award for that essay from The University of Pittsburgh. I read it aloud to rooms of strangers who cried upon hearing it. The last time I read it aloud was in the hospital, at the bedside of my best friend who was the subject of the piece. Taylor never read the essay for himself, and reading it to him was one of the last things I did.

After Taylor died, I heavily revised the essay to reflect more of my memories of him and centered it around the moment I found out that hope was gone. This is the version I read at his memorial service, as requested by the mothers who loved him.

The Dying of Brightness

By Emily O’Donnell

            What is our obsession with memory?

Photographs fill half a dozen binders, overflow out of boxes, pinned to the wall like butterflies whose wings have been stilled forever. Keep them there, so the memory cannot fly away. Keep these images close, easy to reach for, to bring forth from the depths of the unconscious mind. Keep these images in the eye, ready to be seen once more. Our obsession with memory is a fixation upon the image.

Words fill my head, snippets of phrasing and carefully placed lettering, conversations I’ve forgotten. The sound of your voice speaking carefully. Words record the memory when the camera lens cannot. Our obsession with memory is my word on this page.

When we see our old friends, we try to speak of the present but inevitably find ourselves returning to the past. We do not speak of the bad times, only of the good; the rosy glass of nostalgia is easier to peer through this way. We speak of these memories because it allows us to ignore the ever present, painful truth beneath our conversation. The truth is this: we are no longer a part of each other’s lives. We no longer have a present or future together. We only have memory.

Driving up the winding roads of a mountain, listening to Bjork as smoke uncurled from our lungs. Praying to the pagoda as it glowed red in the darkness. Brewing a cup of tea and waiting patiently for the water to boil, he taught me that patience, the stillness in every moment. I can still find him there, when I am not thinking he sneaks up on me and reminds me of his lost presence.

Here is a memory. In New York, I see my best friends. Two men, young still but not as young as they were when I met them over a decade ago. I still refer to them as ‘my boys.’ I still remember them in the days they were young and in love and fighting everyone for the right to be together. I remember them, before the complications of affairs and disease made them older and wearier of the world.

Sitting in the café, I keep my eyes on the window, waiting for a familiar face. Faces that are embedded within my memory, visages printed upon silver over the years of their faces changing, descriptions inked upon a page. In the end, it is neither of their face that I see. What I glimpse through the layers of glass is a familiar movement of the body, long and lanky, belonging to Jason. I see the shorter silhouette beside him, glasses catching the light, sparking my recognition of Taylor. I run to them, leaping abruptly from my seat as my boyfriend is speaking to me. I am a teenager again, and the boys through that window are the first loves I knew.

I fly at Jason, wrapping my arms around his thin frame and knocking him three feet back. This is a moment that has happened before, in other places and times; Philadelphia, Reading, Pittsburgh, New York, as teenagers, as adults, as something in between. I live every moment in one.

Taylor stands patiently by my side, waiting to wrap his arms around me and keep me in that embrace for a long time. This is a moment I have lived before. I know that he will bury his face in my hair, longer now than it was last he saw me, and sigh heavily. He is the one I have known the longest, and the one who once knew me best. He is the one I can remember through all of the stages of our lives, through all of his many faces and phases. He is entwined with my memory in a way that few others can be.

“I can’t believe we are here,” he murmurs these words into my ear. A snippet of memory, a decade earlier he buried his tearful face into my hair and murmured something along the same lines. Only then, he was full of fear and anger. Around us, there was broken glass and the shattered remnants of his car. I held onto him as tightly as I could. I couldn’t believe we were there. Two years later I sat beside his bedside in a hospital room, as machines breathed for him and pumped his blood in and out of his bed. I couldn’t remember the last thing he had said to me, the last time I heard his voice. I couldn’t believe we were there.

Standing with my best friends, I struggle to remember every moment as it happens as I struggle to remember every moment that has already occurred.

The phone rang in the morning, when the light was cold and blue and snow was falling down around my eaves. On the end of the line was Jason. This was also a moment I’ve lived before, a moment I’ve written on this very page.

My throat burned and my chest froze. “Taylor?” My boys. They were my first loves. I was with them on their first date, I was there every time they broke up and got back together. I was the shoulder to cry on, the spirit to dance with, I was the witness.

This was the moment I found out. There was snow on the ground and my feet were bare and blue in the cold. I knelt in the snow and pressed my face to the earth and cried for the loss of the boy I once called my twin soul.

In New York I stood between Taylor and Jason as Bjork sang down to us from above. She was our goddess, we praised her and worshipped her as we sang along. Bells chimed and I took both of their hands as she sang their song. Who is it that never let you down? Who is it that gave you back your crown? It was a perfect moment, and now it is only a memory. I can still feel his hand in mine, can still see him smiling, joyful in his quiet way.

“I no longer want reminders of what was, what got broken, what got lost, what got wasted.” (44) In my jewelry box at home, I have a small glass vial that contains a lock of Taylor’s hair from when I once cut it. I kept it the same way you would keep hair in a locket, to keep your lover close to you. I kept it, through all the years without ever really knowing why. It is sentimental, a preserved relic of the boy he had once been.

I have photos of my boys, throughout the long transition from boy to man. I look at them now and I see them in another light. Their images before and after the disease took hold of them. To cherish the memory of what was is to know that it will never be again.

“There comes a span of time approaching and following the summer solstice, some weeks in all, when the twilights turn long and blue.” ‘Time is of vital import. The solstice is both the death and rebirth of the year.’ Time is of vital importance. Death and birth are inevitably entwined. The blue nights are a warning, a dying of the brightness.

This is my obsession with memory. To know the golden hour as well as the blue of the night and record it upon the page in any way that I know how. This is how I immortalize him. This is how I will remember him, glimpsed through the layers of glass, so familiar and now so far from me.

Early in our friendship, Taylor and I would get into his car and start driving with no destination. It was summer then, the summer of our youth, the golden hazy days of memory. He would turn his car towards the horizon when the sun began to set and we would follow it, for as long and as far as we could go.

We talked for hours, sometimes without ever saying a word. We knew one another inside and out without knowing it. We hold onto that memory now, the memory of what we once were and never will be again. We chased the sun into the blue nights, until we felt the chill of the dying of the day’s brightness.

Article: Maxo Vanka Murals

The Grieving Mother, The Old Country and Social Injustice

The Milvale Murals of Maxo Vanka

By Emily O’Donnell

Written for The Original Magazine: Issue 12 (2013)

Atop a steep cliff, the church sits quietly looming over the constant construction and noise of cars that fill route 28. Located on the fringes of Milvale, it is easy to pass by when traveling to Mr. Small’s or en route to the Waterworks in Fox Chapel. Although it holds few services, St. Nicholas Church is well known for the vivid murals that stretch over the walls and ceilings of the church. Many churches have beautiful artwork, but the murals at St. Nicholas are different and extraordinary in their themes and execution.

Travel back to 1889 when the artist, Maxo Vanka was born in Croatia. His story begins like a fairy tale; he was the illegitimate son of Hasburg nobility and was given up by his parents to live with peasants for the first eight years of his life. When his grandfather discovered Vanka’s existence, he took the boy from the life of a peasant and brought him to a palace to live in luxury. Vanka went on to study art at some of the finest art schools in Europe and went on to work as a portraitist, painting fine portraits with oil on canvas. The influence of his early years never left him, however, and he continued to empathize with the plight of the peasants and the common people, a fact that is well illustrated in his work on the murals at St. Nicholas Church.

Inherent in the paintings are three predominant themes that were important to Vanka himself, and what he believed was important for religion to address. The first is the theme of the strong mother, who often appears as the grieving mother. In a large mural that stretches above the church pulpit, an image of Mary is painted with the child Christ. Unlike other depictions, this is not a demure Mary. She is painted with strength and determination in her gaze. Mary is depicted here as the Queen of Heaven, a crown on her brow. Her body is stocky and thick, much like the peasant women that Vanka knew as a child. This particular depiction of Mary was based on Dora, the peasant woman who raised Vanka for the first eight years of his life. Her enduring strength and power is reflected in the figure of Mary, the holiest of women in the Catholic Church.


The second theme that was important to Maxo Vanka and is portrayed in the murals is the contrast between the old country and the new country. As an immigrant, this was integral to Vanka’s life. He came to the United States after marrying a Jewish-American woman, the decision was a difficult one for him as he loved his homeland of Croatia but detested the condition of life for many in his home country. In his murals, he depicts the old country as pastoral, peasants in the field working and praying. The new country is America and is depicted with some cynicism. His depiction of America is full of the smoke of the industrial revolution. Mary Petrich is a docent at the St. Nicholas Church, who has been giving tours of the murals for 13 years. She states that the immigrants “when they came to the United States, they were told the streets were made of gold. Of course they weren’t.”


The third theme that perisists throughout Vanka’s work is that of social injustice. Maxo Vanka was a noted pacifist, and when World War I broke out in Europe, he served as a member of the Red Cross. He would not fight in battle, his job included clearing dead bodies from the field and the mark that they left on his psyche was indelible. These dead bodies and broken figures recur in his work on the murals. On corresponding walls of the church, there are two corresponding paintings that deal with this theme. The first is titled “Croatian Mother Raises Her Son For War.” It depicts a soldier returning home from war in a casket. He is surrounded by grieving women wearing a white habit, similar to a nun’s habit, but in reality these white dresses are traditional mourning clothes for Croatian mothers. The graveyard beyond the women and the body of the young man is filled with crosses, for those who have died in war. There is an empty expanse of space in the graveyard, awaiting the crosses of young men who will die in future wars. The dead body of the young men has an arm missing from one of the sleeves, indicating that he had already lost limbs before he lost his life.  Mary Petrich speaks eloquently about the theme of this painting, “What greater social injustice is there than war?” She asks, “How many young men come back from war now with empty sleeves, empty pant legs, empty hearts and empty heads?”


On the corresponding wall there is a matching painting titled “Croatian Mother Prepares Her Son For Industry.” Whereas the previous painting was set in the old country of Croatia, this painting is set in the new country, specifically in Johnstown, Pennylvania and tells a true story. A young man lies dead with grieving women around him once more. In the distance, a coal mine is on fire and the brothers of the young man are headed into the mine in attempt to save the lives of those trapped inside. None of them will come out alive.


Vanka first began work on the murals in 1937. He worked day and night, Petrich recalls watching him work as a child when she attended the St. Nicholas school next to the church. “I would come in at 8 am for class and he would be working, he would work until 2 am. Sometimes, he would enlist Father Zagar – the priest who commissioned Vanka to paint the murals – to mix paint for him… Most of these murals were completed in only eight weeks.” There are twenty-two murals in St. Nicholas church and eleven of them were painted in the span of eight weeks in 1937. Maxo Vanka returned to the church in 1941 to paint the remaining eleven murals and in that time, World War 2 began and influenced Vanka’s work drastically. There is a stark difference between the 1937 and the 1941 murals. Although all of the paintings deal with the same three themes, in his later murals it is the final theme of social injustice that is most prevalent in Vanka’s work.

In one painting called “Mother 1941,” there is another of Vanka’s strong female figures hung with chains on a cross, her head bowed low. Mary Petrich describes this painting with a different title, “Mother Croatia on the Cross.” This painting was Vanka’s emotional tribute to his motherland, at that time caught up in the chains of facism. Two interlocking paintings show “Prudence” and “Justice” as matching angels. The figure of Prudence holds up one finger to its mouth. Petrich explains that the angel is warning the immigrants of the new country to keep quiet so they would not be discriminated against in America for their accent at a time when suspicions of foreigners were at their height.


The most foreboding figure in the entire church is the painting opposite the figure of Justice. The painting titled “Injustice” features a large figure holding a bloody sword, wearing bloody gloves and most notably, wearing a gas mask.

“Who does it look like to you?” Mary Petrich asks. She laughs softly, despite the seriousness of the image. “Children come in and tell me it looks just like Darth Vader.” In a way, the gas mask of Injustice does resemble the heavy helmet of Vader. But there is gravity to the image that no childlike comparisons can undo.


The final paintings that Vanka completed in 1941 are actually the first that visitors might notice when walking into the church. Stretching across the low ceiling at the entrance of the church are several murals that vividly depict the horrors of war. In one painting, two soldiers are in the midst of killing each other, one French and one German. In between them is the figure of Christ on the cross, being stabbed by one of the soldier’s bayonets. Petrich says, “In killing someone unjustly, you are killing Christ.”

The opposing painting once again features the strong figure of Mary that has been recurrent throughout so much of Vanka’s work. This powerful figure is in the midst of a battlefield, her large peasant hands gripping the weapons of the soldiers and attempting to turn them away from one another. The holy mother becomes the grieving mother of Vanka’s work as she struggles to keep her children from destroying one another in the horrors of war.

These murals are unlike any religious paintings that are typically found in a church. It is notable that Maxo Vanka himself was not a Catholic or a religious man. He was an agnostic with strong morals and deeply held beliefs of pacifism and justice. These murals are not easy on the eyes or easy to accept. They challenge every viewer who walks in through the doors of the church, but it is a necessary challenge for many who have become too complacent in their religious beliefs, for those who find it too easy to turn a blind eye to the social injustice that Vanka sought to bring to light.

Mary Petrich concludes her tour with the following words: “I am 85 years old and I have known these murals for a long time. So what do they mean to me? These are not comforting murals, they are very disquieting. They are a challenge, are they not? So what am I challenged to do? In the words of Micah, from the Jewish scriptures, I am challenged to ‘act justly, love tenderly, and walk humbly with my God.’ Do I always do it? I don’t think so. But in the words of G.K. Chesterton: ‘Christianity hasn’t failed, it hasn’t been tried.’ So we have to keep on trying.”

St. Nicholas Croatian Catholic Church is located at 24 Maryland Ave., Pittsburgh PA

Mary Petrich leads tours on Saturdays at 12pm, 1pm and 2pm.

For more information visit http://www.vankamurals.org

Poetry: Penumbra


The shadow on the moon
blots out light,
like ink on a page
like fear in her

Red shadows
blood spilt
over the starry
expanse of sky,
between the spaces
the silence

The dead whisper
their secrets
where we cannot

The stars are failing
as light is fading
and her eyes
have gone

These constellations
were once memorized
in the depths of night
when she was young
and her father sung
in a child’s ears
he had no

The retrograde
brings no relief
as shadows
fade back
to light
she is left
with a chill
in the empty

Only the wind

Poetry: Erasure


Ground to the sun

Real relations work

And forms this living

                                Effect of these synchronies


I’m opening up to you

Alone at the sentencing

Not ours

With value

you can live

on time

In the hedge

I am in love

Tonight we’re


in-dependent circuit

Spans of life can be traded

(Emily O’Donnell : 2012)


Poetry: Ouroboros

Pulse racing the heart to the end –

–Of a line that has no beginning

It turns back on me as I chase

Raindrops back to heaven

Soil into earth.


We bury ourselves in mist

Unable to see through the veil

Over eyes blind with vision.


It keeps us going

Faster until until friction

Builds static sweat on flesh

Masking senses and clearing minds

We consume ourselves in the

planetary drift – a line without end.


Circling as the wheel spins out

Our fates into the pattern

Of seasonal shift –

Bodily transformation of eruption

And stagnation that stops –

Repeats anew as we eat

Our tails growing.


Emily O’Donnell


Essay: Fugues

Emily O’Donnell




Fugue 1+2


A fugue is a harmony of many voices, in music it speaks in a symphony. In psychology it speaks in discord, it speaks in silence, the forgetting of voices that are beloved. The forgetting of our own voice. The musical fugue speaks to us with eloquence; the fugue state is the emptiness that surrounds the sound.


Our conversation is a fugue, two voices speaking around the subject at hand. How often can we dip into the secret source of strife, the sound of discord. The secrets that lie beneath our words, the source of our shame.



Fugue 3


When I speak to my mother, for the first time in months, we speak of my current predicament, a decision to be made. To reach out to her is a sign of my own weakness, my inability to make an important decision on my own. I feel some embarrassment, but I do not feel shame or humiliation. I do feel weak but she reminds me that there is strength in admitting your weakness.


My mother and I speak for over an hour and beneath our conversation there are subtexts, undercurrents. Secrets we both keep.  The siblings that are absent from our discussion (‘How is your sister? What do you mean she’s moving to Korea, she didn’t tell me.’ ) Or the new husband and family that are not a part of my life (‘I’ve been married three times,’ she reminds me as if I cannot hear the murmuring voices of the children in the background, my youngest siblings who are like strangers to me.)


In his fugues on Humiliation Koestenbaum asks us to “Think of the silent adjustments we all make, the enormously complicated adjustments, merely to have a simple conversation with another human being.” These silent adjustments are often the biggest decisions we make in our lives. All so we can better speak to others around us. To speak to my mother, I had to make the silent adjustment that is unfamiliar to me now, to become a daughter again, a child who considers herself an adult. This could be a humiliating experience if you let it be, or if you crave it to be. But often it just happens, unconsciously. I need help and I need someone to tell me what to do, no one else has the authority to help me make a decision like my mother, and so often I leave her out of them. In the past, she has certainly humiliated me as I have done to her, but was it ever intentional? Do we have to cut each other down in order to know how to speak to each other?


Fugue 4



A fugue is a harmony of two or more voices. I hear my voice overlaid by my mother’s across the airwaves, the length of one state beneath us. I hear my sister’s voices echo in my own when I speak, the vocal inflections and words. I can hear my father’s voice in my irony. I can hear the voice of my lover in my head, the conversations and discordant fugues that led me to this one.


Koestenbaum says “We’re all in the business of cleansing ourselves of shame.” Two nights ago, my lover asked me a difficult question. A decision to be made. I didn’t know how to answer so I stood up to wash the dishes, busy my hands. He came over and embraced me, as I stood with my hands steaming in hot water. He thrust his own hands under mine and told me that when we feel guilty, we feel the need to wash ourselves. He asked me if I was feeling guilty. I said no, and then went to take a shower.


Our voices are not always in harmony and maybe this is why we love to sing. If I could sing my words then maybe they would strike the chord of the fugue state within another. Where we can forget who we are for a brief time, live as a complete stranger. Shift our identity into something strange and new, where we do not remember our problems, our families, our mothers and the undercurrents of our conversations. In a fugue state, we are blank; the voices of the song are unrecognizable.