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Family resurrects Nativity murals after decades in storage

HURRICANE, W.Va. -- Margaret Naylor's faith and love of art prompted an unusual commission in 1958. The Hurricane woman and her husband, Paul, commissioned an artist to paint a larger-than-life Christmas mural of the Nativity, using their young daughters as models for three adoring angels.

Two 5- by 9-foot paintings, one of the Nativity and the other of the Three Kings, graced the front of the Naylors' home for 10 to 12 years into the 1960s. Paul always placed the Wise Men to the left of the Nativity so they would be facing east.

Eventually, Paul relegated them to careful storage in the family garage. More than 30 years later, son-in-law John Burks pulled them out of storage and mounted them in front of the Hurricane home he shares with Naylor's daughter, Stephanie Naylor-Burks.

The spotlighted scenes are visible from Interstate 64 at the 36-mile marker between the Winfield/Teays Valley and Hurricane exists on the northern side of highway. They're out for the second year.

"Mother loved art and she had the idea of having our family's faces in the Nativity," said Stephanie. "She was especially sentimental about Christmas."

The Naylors spotlighted and placed fresh pine around the murals. Stephanie remembers people driving by to see them. The display earned the Naylors several awards from the city of Hurricane in the annual Christmas decoration contests.

Velta Zvarulis, an immigrant from Latvia, and her 18-year-old daughter, Maija, painted the murals. Paul and Mike Zvarulis, Velta's husband, worked together at Union Carbide. Stephanie speculates that her father heard about Velta's artistic abilities at work. The sisters were 6, 8 and 10 years old when they posed for the mural.

"I remember rushing home after school when I was 6 to pose for the angels. We'd get a quick snack, then head to St. Albans where Mrs. Zvarulis had a studio in her garage," said Stephanie Naylor-Burks. "I remember we had to sit still for a very long time."

Margaret held a baby doll so Zvarulis could paint her hands and capture the way the folds of fabric from her gown fell when she was seated. Stephanie doesn't know who modeled for Mary's face, but she thinks Mike Zvarulis sat for Joseph.

Maija Zvarulis painted the mural of the kings on camels traveling to pay homage to the newborn baby based on a picture on a Christmas card. "I remember Mrs. Zvarulis took lots of time to paint the Nativity. I saw it develop in stages," Stephanie said. "Her daughter worked very quickly on the other one, though. I sat in awe as she painted the camels."

After Paul gave up the time-consuming and physically taxing job of mounting the murals at their residence, church members displayed them for a few years in front of First Baptist Church in Hurricane, where the family attended, before the paintings took up permanent storage in the Naylors' garage. Paul died in 1996.

"My mother was always concerned about the storage. Nothing had been done to preserve them," she said.

The scenes remained in storage until last year, when curiosity got the most of Stephanie's husband, who, in the 31 years of their marriage, had never seen them. He removed them from the back of the garage and assured his mother-in-law that they were in good condition. She agreed to his proposal to display them in front of their house.

Painted in oil on plywood, the murals hadn't faded or disintegrated despite their years of standing in the weather and in storage. John built sturdy wooden frames to protect the edges and mounted them in front of their log cabin home with rebar and big eyebolts.

Margaret was gravely ill at Christmas time last year, but her daughter, Jennifer Warner of Sistersville, drove her to John and Stephanie's house to see them. Their sister Catherine Naylor-Smith lives in Hurricane.

"She was tickled that they were up again, but she didn't get a good look from the car," Stephanie said. Her mother died in July.

"Of course, she was very moved that he got them out again. She was always very proud of them," Stephanie said. "But she did comment that they should have pine around them."

The family plans to donate the murals to the church and arrange to have them displayed indoors in her mother's honor.

"Lots of our friends came by to see them last year. They talked about how breathtaking and stunning they are," she said. "It humbles you and gives a sense of peace to see them."

Reach Julie Robinson at julier@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1230.


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