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!