Cool Things - Strawberry Hill Paintings
Travelers speeding through Kansas City on I-70 get a fleeting glimpse of a church spire atop a hill just west of the Kansas River. The spire marks the location of an historic Croatian neighborhood known as Strawberry Hill or, simply, "the Hill." While the interstate divides the Hill, it has not destroyed its history. That lives on in the works of local artist Marijana Grisnik, who paints under the name Marijana (pronounced Mary-yawn'-ah).
Strawberry Hill is one of Kansas City's best-known ethnic communities. Most of its Slavic population arrived around the turn of the 20th century, attracted to the United States by economic opportunities. The new immigrants first settled in the Kansas River bottoms, where they found work in packing houses, stockyards, and railroads. They soon built a church for Croatian immigrants on the mound, named by tradition "Strawberry Hill" for the wild berries that once grew there. As arrivals became more established and prosperous, they began to move up from the bottoms onto the Hill. It became an ethnic enclave, a traditional village within a modern city, filled with Croatian businesses patronized by Croatian workers. Residents spoke the same language, sang the same songs, attended each other's weddings and funerals. As with all such communities, traditions continued to evolve with the passage of time and exposure to the broader American culture.
Marijana was born on the Hill to Croatian American parents (her grandparents had emigrated from Croatia to Kansas City). Her father died when she was only 13 years old. Despite the sorrow and financial difficulties resulting from her parent's death, Marijana recalls this time fondly because the Hill was a wonderful place to grow up. Neighbors kept a watchful eye on Marijana and her siblings, and they were full participants in the area's active social and cultural life. Marijana recalled of this time, "I was lucky, because my mom shared me with everyone on the Hill. I have memories of so many people on the Hill--different times, different holidays."
Although Marijana enjoyed painting in childhood, she never received formal artistic training. She married in 1956 and settled a few miles from the Hill. Later, confined by health issues during her third pregnancy, Marijana again took up painting at the urging of her mother. She began documenting her memories in oil.
Marijana's taking up the brush as an adult coincides with a pivotal time in Strawberry Hill's history. About 125 homes in the area were condemned for the construction of Interstate 70, which skirts the Hill just above the river bottoms. Living so near to the Hill, and maintaining close contact with relatives and friends there, Marijana keenly felt this traumatic event. The interstate's effects on the neighborhood were compounded by the natural progression of younger generations moving away and older generations passing away. Strawberry Hill was never quite the same. Marijana's deeply felt experiences on the Hill are beautifully reflected in the body of her work. People and traditions from her childhood take center stage, with the focal point being St. John the Baptist Catholic Church. As the artist explained, "Everything [on the Hill] centered around the church--the religious activities, social activities, the school, everything."
Marijana has painted regularly for decades, producing hundreds of works from memory. Her unique skill at documenting Strawberry Hill's history has earned her accolades and museum exhibitions, both in the United States and Croatia. Although Marijana originally was surprised at this fame, believing no one would be interested in her paintings, she has since come to understand why they are appreciated. "They are a story of the Hill when they are all shown together. When I've seen them at exhibits and listen to the way people talk about them and the way they respond to them, I know it is a story of my people."
This is a small selection of the 44 paintings by Marijana in the collections of the Kansas Museum of History in Topeka. The museum also owns handmade Christmas tree ornaments in the Croatian tradition.
Entry: Cool Things - Strawberry Hill Paintings
Author: Kansas Historical Society
Author information: The Kansas Historical Society is a state agency charged with actively safeguarding and sharing the state's history.
Date Created: January 2010
Date Modified: January 2014
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