Leopoldine (‘Poldi’) Mimovich had a decision to make. Packing her bags to come to Australia in 1949 with her new husband, and with limited space in her luggage, she only had enough room left for her cutlery set or a large block of wood—she couldn’t bring both.

The cutlery set was left behind and the wood—a block of linden, native to the Italian Tyrol, where she was born—came with her to her new home. Prized by sculptors, linden is a wood that rewards a skilled and patient carver sensitive to its properties and inherent beauty.

If Poldi’s life to that point had taught her anything, it was that the life of an artist requires just these qualities: patience, dedication to one’s craft and a sensitivity to the beauty and potential hidden within seemingly ordinary materials and unlikely situations.

Raised in a large and devoutly Catholic family, she had an early sense of her artistic calling. But her parents couldn’t afford to send her to art school, so she worked throughout her teens as an apprentice to her father, an interior decorator. She was just 16 when she met her first husband, Othmar Vockner, a soldier, and only 21 when he was killed in the early years of World War II.

By 1940—as Europe was spiralling into conflict and chaos—she had moved to Vienna to attend art school and finally pursue her calling. Here, inspired by her deep Catholic faith, she developed a particular interest in religious sculpture, and in 1943 she was offered a place at the College of Religious Art in Hallstadt, Germany.

She had barely arrived, though, when the college was closed by the Nazis and she was conscripted to work as an accountant in a munitions factory. But even here, in these unpromising circumstances, her gift was developed and nurtured under the mentorship of a fellow conscript at the factory, a noted Viennese sculptor. At the end of the war, Poldi returned to complete her Diploma of Art at Hallstadt, graduating in 1947.

The following year, she married her second husband, Ljubisa (Leo) Mimovich, a Serbian who had been a prisoner of the Gestapo during the war. Stripped of her Austrian citizenship because of her marriage, and finding herself stateless, Poldi applied with her new husband to emigrate. They were still waiting to hear from the US immigration authorities when their application to Australia was approved, which is how they found themselves aboard the MV Skaugum on the way to Melbourne, with a block of linden, a set of sculpting tools and not much else in their luggage.

There were further setbacks for Poldi, including the onset of a serious, lifelong illness on the long voyage to Australia, a frustrating stint in Victoria’s Bonegilla Reception and Training Centre, and being required to work in menial jobs on first arriving in Melbourne—along with the homesickness and other challenges of acclimatisation faced by new immigrants.

But gradually and faithfully, Poldi carved out a new life and an artistic career in Australia, joining other recently arrived Europeans who were transforming and revitalising Australia’s postwar cultural and artistic scene.

Starting out as a furniture carver for Myer, she steadily gained commissions for her distinctive, expressive sculptures in wood and bronze, and for her paintings. Her artworks now grace churches, homes and gardens across Melbourne and far beyond, two of her crucifixes even finding their way to chapels in Antarctica and in the United Nations building in New York.

The first thing Poldi sculpted on her arrival in Australia, though, was a beautiful nativity scene in linden, an image of new life and hope that emerged from that piece of wood she’d carried with her all the way from her homeland. For years it had pride of place above her fireplace, and was often pointed out to visitors as she shared the story of its origins.

One regular visitor, and old friend, was photographer John Casamento—someone else with an eye for hidden beauty, whose own artistic calling has similarly enriched the Church in Melbourne over many years.

In 2013, when she was in her nineties, Poldi’s house caught fire. Neighbours helped her to escape unharmed, but many of her sculptures were smoke-damaged. It was John’s daughter Bernadette Thorley who helped Poldi to clean and restore her sculpture of the nativity. Like the artist who created it, it had travelled far from home, and was shaped by the love and care of its maker, as well as by trial and crisis. And like Poldi, it had not just survived but had blessed those who encountered it, helping them to see the beauty of Emmanuel, the God who is with us in every circumstance.

Leopoldine Mimovich OAM died in the arms of her daughter Gabrielle on Christmas Day 2019 at the age of 99. Her linden sculpture of the nativity now hangs above a fireplace in the home of John Casamento. Gabi Mimovich carries on her mother’s work.

Main image: Nativity by Leopoldine Mimovich (detail). Photo by John Casamento.