Margaret Muza: Musing About Her Muses (Part 2)

Before my time is up as the Narrator, I wanted to sit down with the new Artist-in-Residence Margaret Muza one last time (though I’m sure I’ll be back many times during her residency!) to get and share with you some of the back stories of the tintypes currently hanging in her studio.  As the walls fill with new ones, including mine (see end of post), and she decides to add larger-scale photos and perhaps change the decor, it’s likely that some of these will be replaced.  She began her stories with one of the most enigmatic ones.  It’s hard not to notice his earthy stare.

This one is my Uncle Tom.  I took this in front of the family cabin my grandpa built in Iron Mountain, Michigan.  Oh, your family has a family cabin in Pembine?  I know exactly where that is!  And it’s 40-acres of land?  Same here!

Well, we go there every summer, but now my Uncle Tom lives in Arizona and rarely comes home.  He was really skinny this year because he was bitten by a scorpion (it’s not the first time!).  He’s crazy . . . crazy cool.  He loves Patron, and I love Patron, so any time we get together, we sit and have some Patron.  When you’re around him, you want him to give you time–he’s that kind of guy.  Again, he’s crazy cool.  Like he calls his wife Vicki “his bride,” as in “This is my bride, Vicki.”

He never lets anyone take his photo, but when he saw me setting up my darkroom behind the cabin, he couldn’t resist asking what I was doing.  I told him that he had to sit for a photograph.  “No, no,” he said.  But he did anyway.

This is my friend Heather.  She’s an animator and editor.  She had her baby five days after that photo was taken.  We decked her out with flowers and she wore that black shawl.  She gave it to me afterward and it’s hanging on the wall behind my desk in the studio now.  I think it’s actually supposed to be a wall hanging like this, but I’m not sure.  It could be a shawl.  It’s definitely beautiful on her!

On the left is my sister Rachel near Cedar Creek.  We were trying to do a mock wedding so I could have samples, hoping people would want me to photograph their weddings with tintypes.  It was a beautiful day in the summer.

On the right is one of my other sisters, Claire.  She’s the most cooperative and available, willing to sit for almost anything, letting me pose her when I have a concept in mind.

The woman on the left is Jolena, and the man on the right is my boyfriend, Jordan.  They’re both double exposures.  I especially love the one of Jordan because of how it perfectly captures his profile.  One person said it looks like he’s looking out of a keyhole.  You thought he was peaking out from behind something frosted?  You can see his profile now, right?

I also wanted to know if any of the ephemera that fills every nook and cranny of her studio held any significance for her.  It doesn’t sound like there are any earth-shattering stories behind any of them.  In fact, as she held up little jars of beads and tiny nails and glitter (“Look at this cute bottle.  It’s like a little salt shaker.  For glitter.”), she mused that she really just like “little things that slip between the cracks.”

One of those things was half shell containing small tintypes no larger than 2×3 inches.  “This is about the size that most people could afford back when tintype was popular,” she explained.  “They could go to the fair and in a few minutes they could walk away with their portrait.  Especially with these little tintypes, you know that someone held it in their hands.  They sat, saw the process happen, held it in their hands–then either kept it or gave it to someone else.  Who held it in their hands.”

There’s a little bit of history everywhere you turn in Margaret Muza’s studio.  I encourage you to stop in, step back in time, delight in more of her stories, and sit for a tintype–maybe, just maybe, in the paper moon.


p.s. I didn’t sit in the paper moon; instead, I sat in a white t-shirt against the white lace on the wall.  The effect is dramatic, I think!  Although I’m not sure how to describe my expression . . .

Margaret Muza: Musing About Her Muses (Part I)

Her last name is pronounced “myuza,” which sounds like music and muses.  Its origin is Kashubian, from an ethnic group that hails from Poland on the Baltic Sea.  Interestingly, Margaret Muza is related to the Jacob Muza who in 1872 established a colony on Jones Island (really a peninsula named after James Monroe Jones), essentially squatting there without a title for the land and inviting families from German-occupied Poland to immigrate there.  The fishing on Lake Michigan was a tempting lure for the Kashubian settlers, who had fished the Baltic for centuries.  Within 20 years, 1,800 people lived and worked on Jones Island.  I told her that I had just recently been introduced to Kaszube’s Park, the smallest park in Milwaukee, a few weeks prior: it was the first stop on Adam Carr’s Detours bus tour of Milwaukee’s south side.  Our interview would begin and end with Kaszube’s Park, in fact.

Not wanting her mother’s side of the family to be left out, Margaret then told me of her Irish great-grandfather, who got a third class ticket with a friend on the Titanic’s maiden voyage.  When his friend announced that he couldn’t go, Margaret’s great-grandfather, not wanting to travel alone, sold his ticket.  This stroke of luck is one reason why Margaret Muza is the newest Pfister Artist-in-Residence.

Before she became the Artist-in-Residence, however, Margaret used to work at Sweet Water urban fish and vegetable farm, where she filleted fish all day.  Handling so many fish made her hands rough and scaly, so much so that she would joke that she was actually becoming a fish.  She muses now how at Sweet Water she had linked herself to her Kashubian past.

Lucky for The Pfister, Margaret is not a fish, but an exuberant and accomplished tintype photographer who owns Guncotton Tintype, continuing a craft made popular in the United States in the 1850s and 60s. The process involves coating a thin sheet of metal with a dark lacquer or enamel to create a direct positive.  Margaret uses silver and a varnish she mixes herself, made from tree sap, lavender oil, and alcohol.  A tintype can be “coated, sensitized, exposed, developed, fixed, washed, dried and varnished in less than 10 minutes,” which helped make this process so ubiquitous at carnivals and fairs, as well as on the Civil War sidelines, where photographers set up portable darkrooms.  Everyone from children to presidents sat for these (almost) instant photos.

Guests at The Pfister have already begun having their photographs taken in the studio, which has been transformed from the bright and modern white walls that highlighted former Artist-in-Residence Pamela Anderson’s large-scale abstract paintings into a cozy green drawing room or living room with plush furniture, a writing desk and bookcase, a record player, and, of course, tintypes everywhere you look.

One side of the studio is set up for portrait taking and sports an impressive tintype camera the size of a St. Bernard, which Margaret will use to take, you guessed it, large photographs.

The closet has been converted into a darkroom.  And the room is replete with delightful vintage ephemera: toy cars, old books, golden fruits, wooden deer, feathers, statues, jars with tiny objects, mirrors, and even a little bat paperweight.

On the wall behind her desk hangs a huge print, reminiscent of an old postcard, of St. Mary Lake in Glacier National Park. It is quite impressive against the green walls and juxtaposed to the many artfully scattered objects.

In this first in a two-part series about Margaret Muza–past, present, and future–I asked Margaret about the genesis of her craft.

Why tintype photography?

I love old things, old images.  I’m bigtime into history: everything was made so well and so beautifully.  It kind of breaks my heart that we seem to be getting away from that.  I get sentimental about it.

When I was little, whenever I wanted to do something, I couldn’t wait to get started fast enough.  So it doesn’t surprise anyone that I started doing tintype photography with no background whatsoever.

I remember that I once wanted a treehouse so bad.  I asked my mother, “Please get me wood.  All I need is the stuff.”  She was always getting rid of different kinds of scraps, but she never saved me the things I needed for the treehouse.  So I at least ended up making a seat, a kind of bench, up in the tree.  It’s still there, though someone else owns the house now.

Back then, I wanted my own spot, my own space–and I tried making it myself.  So later, when I discovered tintype, I just had to figure it out, too.  I knew that I’d learn faster on my own.  So I flew to New York to take a workshop, then just started collecting all the things I would need: all the chemistry, a manual, my first camera, darkroom lights, and so on.  Most of it I was able to find on Craigslist, either used or built.

Who or what are your muses?

My four sisters.  I’m comfortable with them.  I know them.  We help each other out.  And they and my one brother are the prettiest people I know, so they are the perfect models for me. And my two youngest sisters both sell vintage clothes in separate Etsy shops, so it’s easy to get that old feel in my photographs.

What is it about old photographs that you love so much?

There’s something about old photos that used to have a creepy effect on me.  Something about the people in them.  I wanted to know what it was that made them like that.  Was it that people were more intense-looking way back when?  Was it something about the process?

I think about the early scene in the film Dead Poets Society, where Mr. Keating has all the students lean in close to the glass cabinets to peer at the old photos of students past.  He wanted them to see into the photos, almost past them–into the past.  And that’s when he starts whispering to them really slowly: “Carpe.  Carpe diem.  Seize the day, boys.”

 Most importantly, why green?

It’s hemlock green, to be exact.  I have a problem with white walls.  I wanted a relaxing color so I could make the studio like a living room.  This is what my house looks like, so I wanted people to peak in and see a reflection of who I am.  The studio is going to be, after all, like a window into my life and my art.

In Part 2, then, I will learn about the first few weeks of her residency and how Margaret is planning to seize the day (and year) and help guests connect with the past while still keeping them very much in the present.  

I almost forgot!  I had said that my short session with Margaret began and ended with Jones Island.  I had just packed up and was headed to another meeting when a young man poked his head in and started looking around.

He was admiring a huge wooden half-moon onto which Margaret was getting ready to paint a face (photos forthcoming of the finished product, which will look incredible in her photographs!).  He remarked that he has a good friend in California who makes similar moons for sets and that he loves all things vintage, especially tintypes.  He hadn’t realized yet that Margaret was a tintype photographer and doubled-over in amazement. We asked if he also did tintype.  He doesn’t, but said he works for the United States Coast Guard Sector Lake Michigan and his boat is moored– guess where?  Jones Island.  I had to leave the two of them at this point, but I look forward to learning and sharing more of their conversation in the next post!