Once asked where he was from, Andy Warhol replied, “I am from nowhere.” Of course this was not true, but the famously cryptic Warhol seemed otherworldly. He was born and grew up in Pittsburgh, a city synonymous with heavy industry, specifically the production of steel and aluminum. The man who would become an artistic and cultural icon was an unlikely native son of the blue collar Steel City. A better fit for Warhol’s point of entry into the world was a place he never actually visited, specifically his mother and father’s homeland of Carpathian Ruthenia (present day far eastern Slovakia). Julia and Ondrej Warhola were Carpatho-Rusyns, who immigrated to the United States during the first quarter of the 20th century. Some scholars place the Carpatho-Rusyns as a subgroup of Ukrainians, while others see them as distinctly separate. They are an East Slavic people who today inhabit the far reaches of eastern Slovakia and southwestern Ukraine. Obscure to the point of anonymity, the Rusyns have never had their own nation, with the exception of the short lived one day Republic of Carpatho-Ruthenia in 1939. Over the last one hundred years they were folded into such ill-fated polities as Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union. Despite assimilationist efforts by various empires and nations, the Carpatho-Rusyns preserved their language and many traditional customs. This was largely due to their geographical location. The Carpatho-Rusyns inhabit the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains, an area forever on the fringes, a forgotten borderland unknown to the rest of Europe. From this obscure land came the couple who gave the world Andy Warhol.
From the Middle of Nowhere – Coming To America
Ondrej and Julia Warhola (née Zavacká) were born into the Austro-Hungarian Empire during the latter part of the 19th century. Their homeland was plagued by stagnation and backwardness. Much of the population was illiterate. Only a handful of schools served Carpatho-Rusyns. The rural economy was dominated by Hungarians and Germans with Jews also enjoying a rise to prominence. Politics were mainly the preserve of Hungarians, who had instituted an aggressive form of Magyarization. This had left Carpatho-Rusyns with few good choices. They could either assimilate, struggle in dire poverty or emigrate. Employment opportunities were few in the area. The immediate area from which Andrej and Julia came was known as a center for Europe’s taxidermy trade, not exactly a thriving industry. Ondrej and Julia were married in 1909. The couple already had a son when Ondrej made a landmark decision to leave Austria-Hungary for the United States in 1914. This was an unforeseen serendipitous bit of luck, as World War I would soon break out.
A year later the area in which Julia lived was overrun by the advancing Russian army. Though the Russians were beaten back, their short lived occupation signaled the upheaval that was to mark the region for years. While Julia was raising the eldest Warhol son amidst this tumult, Ondrej had found work in a Pennsylvania coal mine. It would take seven long years before Julia was able to join her husband. Finally in 1921 – a year after the Rusyn homeland was assigned to the new state of Czechoslovakia – Julia Warhol was able to join her husband in Pittsburgh. Seven years later the couple gave birth to the youngest of their three sons, Andrew Warhola. From the humble beginnings of life in a two room row house, Andy would grow to become the world famous pop artist who changed the way the modern world looked at it itself. His rise to fame was improbable, made more so by the fact that his family really was from the middle of nowhere.
Like Mother, Like Son – A Spiritual Transmission
What did Andy Warhol know of his parent’s Carpatho-Rusyn background? What did he know of the customs and culture of that faraway land? More than might be expected. Until his dying days, Warhol was a devout follower of Eastern Byzantine Catholicism (Greek Catholicism). He grew up attending mass on a weekly basis with his parents, continuing this tradition until the end of his life. Along with language, Greek Catholicism was the major identifying trait for Carpatho-Rusyns. Since time immemorial, these people without a nation had been inseparable from their faith. Though he was extremely private about it, Warhol much like his Carpatho-Rusyn ancestors was fervently religious.
The single greatest family influence upon Warhol was his mother. Júlia Justína Zavacká came from Mikó, Austria-Hungary (Miková, Slovakia) a one street village nestled in the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains. It was here that Julia learned the customs and rituals which she would carry on for the rest of her life. She was an excellent artist, spending endless hours drawing her favorite subjects, angels and cats. Her other artistic skills included decorative, stylized handwriting and traditional embroidery. In the lead up to the holiday season, she would decorate pysankas, Ukrainian Easter eggs covered with folk patterns written on them with beeswax. She also loved to sing Carpatho-Rusyn peasant songs. Her influence on Andy was amplified after he contracted St. Vitus Dance syndrome (Sydenham’s chorea) in the third grade. He suffered from involuntary twitching of the hands, face and feet. He spent days at a time unable to leave the bed. There by his side was Julia, dutifully taking care of his every need. When Warhol was fourteen his father suddenly died, this served to bring him even closer to his mother. The relationship continued into adulthood, with Julia moving to New York City in order to take care of Warhol as his career began to soar. His mother’s adherence to the traditions of her upbringing likely had much to do with Warhol’s late career forays into religious art. She was a deeply spiritual person who gave her son knowledge of the rich Carpatho-Rusyn culture.
A Family Affair – Art of the Warhols
The fact that Warhol never visited his family’s ancestral homeland is not all that surprising. The land of the Carpatho-Rusyn’s was sealed behind the Iron Curtain for the entirety of Warhol’s adult life. A couple of years after his death, Czechoslovakia threw off the communist yoke. In 1991, Warhol’s older brother Paul traveled to the homeland of his parents. In the town of Medzilborce – eight miles (12 kilometers) from the village of Miiková- he helped form the Andy Warhol Museum of Modern Art which was placed in the town’s former Communist House of Culture. The museum holds 160 works of art from Warhol, an immeasurable cultural contribution to a region otherwise bypassed by fame and notoriety. It also contains an exhibit of family memorabilia. One artifact is particularly striking. A pen-and-ink drawing of the “Annunciation of Our Lord’s Birth” by Julia Warhola bears a striking resemblance to the early drawings of Andy Warhol. From mother to son, from the lush valleys of Carpatho-Ruthenia to the industrial grit and grime of Pittsburgh, from a peasant’s village in the middle of nowhere to the center of the New York art world, the legacy and lineage of a mother and her son can be traced.