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Depot unveils new exhibit celebrating Northland’s Slovenian heritage

John Susnik, 78, of Duluth, treasures the button box that belonged to his grandfather, Anton Susnik. It will be on display along with artwork and artifacts in The Slovenian Impact on Minnesota's Cultural Landscape exhibit at the Depot that runs from April 21 to May 31. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com1 / 6
"The faces in this painting remind me a lot of the people of my grandmother's generation," said Tom Sersha, referring to the painting at left titled "Comfort in the Lord" by Albin M. Zaverl. Sersha is dressed in traditional Slovenian clothing. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com2 / 6
A painting titled "Tyrolean Peasant" by Albin M. Zaverl from the "Old Country Memories" collection is one of many on display in The Slovenian Impact on Minnesota's Cultural Landscape exhibit that opens Friday at the Depot. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com3 / 6
Tom Sersha holds a tin photo with a floral design of his grandparents Matt and Ivanka Zadnikar on their wedding day in Eveleth in 1917. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com4 / 6
A painting titled "A Leisurely Carriage Ride" by Albin M. Zaverl depicting the Slovenian countryside is part of The Slovenian Impact on Minnesota's Cultural Landscape exhibit at the Depot. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com5 / 6
Charley Langowski (left), collections assistant, and Samantha Tubbs, collections manager and exhibits curator for the St. Louis County Historical Society, unravel information banners about Slovenian culture and history Thursday morning as part of The Slovenian Impact on Minnesota's Cultural Landscape exhibit at the Depot. Bob King / rking@duluthnews.com6 / 6

Outfitted in colorful Slovenian garb, Tom Sersha and John Susnik shared a laugh about how they came to acquire their attire.

Both men — Sersha, 68, of Virginia, and Susnik, 78, of Duluth — got their handmade velvet vests by visiting the same woman near the border between Slovenia and Austria.

"I went up into the hills one day and found this older lady sitting by her home overlooking a pasture and she measured me up," Susnik said.

"You have to be there for a week," Sersha added. "She measures you one day and it's ready a week later."

The two men will serve as docents Friday, when the Duluth Depot and St. Louis County Historical Society open a new exhibit, "The Slovenian Impact on Minnesota's Cultural Landscape." A free reception is open to the public and will run from 5-7 p.m. The exhibit will be on display through May 31.

The exhibit features more than two dozen paintings by the late Iron Range artist Albin M. Zaverlin, from his collection titled, "Old Country Memories." Additionally, the exhibit in the Great Hall showcases a series of detailed panels describing Slovenian culture and history, and a host of artifacts from the Roman Catholic Diocese of Duluth.

"These are the first loans from the Diocese of Duluth," said Samantha Tubbs, collections manager and exhibition curator for the historical society. "We feel pretty special."

The diocese artifacts once belonged to Slovenian missionaries Monsignor Joseph F. Buh and Bishop Frederic Baraga. Among the artifacts is a nearly 400-year-old missal filled with prayers. A black winter hood worn by the snowshoeing priests stands out as a highlight of the diocese artifacts.

"Father Baraga was known to go out in the dead of winter and visit people," Tubbs said.

Slovenia was part of the former Yugoslavia and is a relatively tiny country of 2 million people sandwiched between eastern and western Europe. Its refugees fled unrest after World War I to settle in the Iron Range and Gary-New Duluth, where they worked the mines and steel mill, respectively.

Frank Bucar was 3 years old when his family fled the country to spend five years in a

Austrian refugee camp before being sponsored by the Catholic church and coming to America. The family settled in Gary-New Duluth, where the 70-year-old leader of the Singing Slovenes still resides.

"I grew up speaking two different languages and I didn't even realize it," said Bucar, whose group will perform during the exhibit opening. "I was speaking English outside with my friends and Slovenian in the home with my parents."

In a sneak preview of the exhibit with the News Tribune on Thursday, Sersha walked and talked through the rich array of Zaverlin acrylics. The paintings feature lush emerald greens and the weathered faces of men tilling hillsides and women carrying mounds of hay on their backs.

"You can see by the looks in their faces they are hard-working and industrious people," he said. "The women are fierce and tenacious and only let the men think they run the house."

The Slovenians "love the soil," Sersha said, describing how even today people will often come home from work to put on a smock and head for the garden.

The exhibit makes Sersha and Susnik each think of their grandparents and how proud they’d be to know their culture continues to be celebrated. The men brought artifacts of their own to display — Sersha the crucifix his grandmother left the country with and Susnik a button-box accordion that belonged to his grandfather.

Like Bucar who goes back to Slovenia annually, the two men have visited Slovenia multiple times. They're fonts of information about the country and tend to only get tripped up when it comes to putting on their elaborate vests — each with 19 buttons.

"It was the first thing he asked me today," Sersha said of Susnik. " 'Did you get all the buttons?' I almost always get to the top and find I've missed one."

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