As young children in the 1960s, Olga Sankey and Ivan Marek didn’t think it strange to have people armed with blow torches working away on large pieces of artwork in their backyard. After all their father, Voitre Marek, was a renowned ecclesiastical artist, who was on a mission to live his Catholic faith by creating beautiful pieces to adorn the walls of local churches and schools.
Reflecting on their childhood, the siblings said it was quite remarkable what their father achieved over a decade, with his distinctive artwork still dotted around metropolitan Adelaide, regional South Australia and interstate. They are now taking the time to record and photograph his pieces and are assisting the Art Gallery of SA with its new exhibition, Surrealists at Sea, that will feature the works of Voitre and younger brother Dušan, a well-known surrealist artist.
“For a while Dad was the main ecclesiastical church artist in Australia,” Olga said.
“Dad was really fearless and really inventive. Nothing was too big or too hard, and he was very open to using new materials.”
Trained as a metal engraver in his home country of Czechoslovakia, Voitre studied sculpture in Prague. His growing interest in religions saw him later study Philosophy and Comparative Religions and led to him making the “very deliberate choice” to become a Catholic.
And it was his staunch Catholic beliefs that provided a guiding light for his artistic endeavours.
While he dabbled in surrealist painting and drawings in the early days, sculpture was his true passion. Voitre used a number of mediums for his works, including stone, wood, copper and wire – the latter resulting from his employment at a factory in Adelaide in the 1950s where he made bicycle baskets.
As shown by his colourful works – which are also housed in Anglican and Lutheran churches – Voitre was never afraid to be inventive and think big, hence the need for blow torches!
As Ivan recalled, his dad loved using enamel to brighten some of the larger pieces he created.
“The enamel, which is usually applied to small jewellery-size pieces, had to be fired without stopping, so there would be Dad and one or two helpers in the backyard workshop with blow torches, heating the copper and enamel to red hot,” he said.
“Olga and I would sometimes have to pour water over Dad and his helpers to keep them cool. They were quite spectacular events.”
Olga and Ivan said their father was always a bit of a “last minute person” and it wasn’t uncommon when a deadline was drawing near for him to work 48 hours straight. He would then drive the completed work to the church where it would inspire the faithful in the pews.
During the 1960s and early 70s there was so much demand for his work that he employed a couple of people, including Seacombe Gardens parishioner Michael Potoczky, now 92, to help out. Wife Vera also pitched in, especially after Voitre was involved a serious car accident on his way home from Mass at Brighton in 1973. The injuries made drawing difficult and he had to stop sculpting.
Discussing the upcoming exhibition, Olga, who is also an artist, said her father would have been “very happy” that his ecclesiastical artworks were being put on display for the wider community to see.
“Dad was very focused on creating work that would serve God and the Church as best as possible,” she said. “However, while in his early secular art works he was more like most artists in wanting critical and financial recognition, I don’t think his own artistic ego really came into the ecclesiastical work at all.”
Ivan, a retired art teacher, recalled how his father formed life-long friendships with several priests including Fr Patrick Kelly and
Fr Owen Farrell who he described as being “visionaries” when it came to contemporary art.
“Dad really loved it when he worked during the building development and he created everything in the church,” Ivan said.
“There was a lot of interaction between Dad, the priest and the architects. They would meet on Friday evenings and discuss things at the planning stage and quite often Dad would ring up on the Saturday morning and have a solution.
“People saw very quickly he had a strong style and the materials he used were striking and distinctive, so they knew what they were getting.”
Ivan said the circular Holy Cross Church at Goodwood was a great example of the level of his father’s involvement in some projects and how he integrated sacred artworks into the church’s design. Commissioned by Fr Kelly, Voitre created the exterior cross and internal fittings including the tabernacle and Stations of the Cross, as well as a large steel rod, copper and enamel triptych (with the help of brother Dušan).
Born in Czechoslovakia in 1919, Voitre fled the Communist takeover in 1948, heading to Australia with his then fiancé, Vera, and Dušan. Younger brother Eugene followed a year later.
“When they arrived in Adelaide they were very much the continental artists, they were cool,” Olga said. “They opened their own gallery, and he and Dušan were seen as rather controversial.”
In the mid-1950s Voitre and Vera took their two young children on an adventure to Kangaroo Island where they worked as lighthouse keepers for nearly three years.
“It was an amazing experience and my parents said it was one of the happiest times of their lives,” Olga said.
Returning to the mainland, Voitre was committed to his art and was commissioned to produce hundreds of pieces for churches and schools. In 1997, his contribution was acknowledged with a papal blessing.
Olga and Ivan said the next stage in the project would involve installing small plaques so the faithful could recognise and acknowledge his creations in the years to come.
“It kind of speaks to the quality and beauty of Dad’s work that in almost all the churches the works are still there as he made them, as he presented them. Trends and styles change but most have stood the test of time,” Ivan said.
‘Surrealists at Sea’ exhibition will be held at the Art Gallery of SA from June 19 to September 12. For more information visit www.voitremarek.comJump to next article