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“People will remember what you did, not necessarily what you looked like” - Margaret Muza’s Art-Making Journey

Dec. 22, 2022 at 5:17PM

“It’s so structured, but you're never told why,” Margaret Muza remarks about the day-to-day of childhood as I sit across from her in the “Muza Church” in South Milwaukee on a late Monday afternoon. The golden hour is in full effect and the warm rosiness of the peachy-pink trim and late-afternoon light through the stained glass are working their magic. I sit in a soft swivel chair that’s reminiscent of a seashell. A large, old camera and backdrop take center stage in the former “Church of the Nazarene” that Muza purchased with one of her sisters a few years ago.

“The camera is called a large format view camera that’s from 1902, so it’s not even old enough to have been used for tintypes,” Margaret shares with me. “Tintypes’ heyday was from the 1850s-90s, but it’s the same camera,” she points out, “so, this would’ve been used for large format film, just like regular negatives but large negatives.” The camera stands invitingly like a practical piece of machinery and imposingly like a mysterious portal - I’m sure both elements are what drew Muza to it; linking a satisfying, hands-on process with the pure magic of making art.

Muza sits facing her camera and studio, comfortable but animated, contemplating the structure of school in childhood and how it can often stifle the creative self (or just misguide it). “I don't think your personality has formed enough where you're like, ‘This is what I love,’ she continues. “It’s nice to be able to just approach something that sounds interesting with no pressure for yourself to be good or even do it as a career, you know?” Muza muses. I’m excited for our conversation to continue as structure rarely appeals to me. My school days, too, were an unvarying monotony of endless note-taking, memorization, and regurgitation; I felt most energized by play or by creating, post-school hours. I still find myself trying to create little breaks from the most structured parts of my day-to-day, and while not technically “play”, time in nature and long walks tend to balance me; it’s not perfect, but it’s something. I settle in to hear how Muza found her groove on a more free and creative path, knowing that her pearls of wisdom will be ones to hold onto.

From childhood on, Muza simply started leaning into an unstructured approach by simply exploring what energized and appealed to her—from working with metals and jewels, to wine and cider-making, wedding cake creation, and even Victorian mourning jewelry-making. “Well, there were six kids in my family, and we were all very close in age. All my memories are outdoor memories because my mom would just like kick us out,” she laughs. “Obviously we would fight a lot and stuff, but for the most part, it was pretty magical. My mom is an artist. So is my dad. And we didn't have a lot, ‘cause we were a family of eight on a mailman's salary. So it was just kind of a ‘scrounge’ lifestyle. But my mom made it beautiful,” she admits. “It felt like we had a lot, because she could just do so much with so little, which I think definitely got passed onto the rest of us.” She smiles. “I always joke that I was born in a thrift store ‘cause all of my memories were just scrounging at thrift stores.”

For Muza, this adventurous and open-minded beauty-seeking created lasting ripples in a deep well of inventiveness and creativity. And although she happened upon tintype photography almost accidentally many years later, it was her childhood that led her there. “Growing up around old things is really special and definitely gave me a nostalgia for just the way things used to be made, not for the way people used to live,” Muza emphasizes. She says that during her school days, she was a quiet, “shy” student, but gained a sense of independence by being left to her own devices outside of school, shadowing her siblings’ doings. Her oldest sister was attending Milwaukee High School of The Arts and had a darkroom class. She was intrigued. “She actually turned underneath the basement steps into her darkroom,” Muza recalls. “So, I had that memory of this magical, basement zone with a red light where she was doing this magic thing.” That was her first spark of interest in photography, but that spark didn’t grow until later.

While in school, Muza became more and more attracted to art. “Ceramics was [a class] that I remember a lot.” Her eyes light up. “Just kind of being alone and working with your hands is my favorite thing, ever—to be in a room with other people. You don't necessarily all have to be social, but you're working with your hands, and you could just zone out?” Muza says with satisfaction. I can tell that we hit her “aha” moment. “That’s the best,” she emphasizes. “No one’s gonna call on you to answer a question,” she laughs. From there, Muza understood her comfort zone and what made her go. And although those initial school years didn’t steer her towards a formal education, it didn’t mean her learning days were done. There was plenty she was curious about. Her introduction into the world of tintype was just years after high school. “Even though I didn't go to college, I would always save my money to take workshops if something interested me, even if that meant traveling, you know? I’m more curious now, or at least I feel more curious as I get older and not scared to try something new. I think when you're young, it feels like education or learning (or whatever you wanna call it) is something you just do.”

Muza’s embrace of continued learning has come to light for me more often lately, and I feel the pull to engage with it however I can, hoping to activate dormant spaces in my creative being—making it a point to find new piano music to learn for fun or trying to memorize recipes to be a more intuitive home chef or by simply reading non-fiction books in pieces and parts to gain information and insight (not just to say “I read a book”). Maybe this distinct vantage point comes from mulling over outcomes of past experiences and opportunities, or maybe it comes from talking to friends and family members who are “scared” to try new things. Either way, what I’ve learned is this—being removed emboldens you; you realize that the only thing stopping you is yourself.

And when inspiration comes calling, one never can say, but it always comes with a little push. For Muza, the initial spark in photography and darkroom development from her sister’s schooldays setup fully ignited when she  came across tintype photography randomly by reading an article online, describing the process. Muza suddenly felt the need to learn and engage with this artform in a hands-on way. She couldn’t stop thinking about it. “I had just seen that Civil War documentary. That Ken Burns one?,” she recalls. “It's filled with tintype imagery, because that was the era. [Around the same time], I read a newspaper article for Mother Earth News—they’d digitized their whole archive. And somehow, this super old article [about tintype] was making its way around the Internet in like 2000, whatever that was. And I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is so cool.’” Muza was hooked. “The article was describing the process and the instant nature of it; [that it was] something that you can do by yourself … like an instant gratification sort of thing. I emailed the article to myself, and then I saw that tintype of Katie Couric [by Victoria Will] like a month or two later online. I was like, ‘I’m gonna read the article again.’ So I went back and re-read it.”

It sent Muza down a rabbit hole, trying to uncover enough crumbs to form a path. “Whoever wrote the article said, ‘I teach this process, and you can buy some equipment from me,’” so I searched for his email address and emailed him: ‘It sounds like you're in Michigan … I live in Wisconsin. How do I sign up?’” Muza laughs. “He wrote me back a few days later and was like, ‘That article was written in 1979 or something. I don't even do that anymore.’ He never wrote back to me again.”

Muza didn’t let that discourage her. She ended up finding a tintype workshop in New York that she signed up for with Eileen Blom. The two friends had met working at Sweet Water Organics in Milwaukee and shared similar interests. It felt like a natural progression for them to form and operate Gun Cotton Tintype in Milwaukee. Muza and Blom began to learn and troubleshoot the wet plate chemical process, figuring out all the ins and outs and safety measures involved, building up skills and notoriety by shooting friends, bands, weddings, and attendees at various events. Blom eventually moved to Baltimore and Muza continued on. Muza says now, with everything in the rearview, “I wanna keep getting better. I started changing the recipes I use very recently; I've been using the same recipes for eight years. There are four elements of wet chemistry in the process and changing one kind of makes a big difference. I think I’m finally comfortable to try a new recipe. It’s like learning how to walk. It's so weird, but I like it.”

When Muza struck out on her own, she was still thick in the learning process and wanted to find a tintype photography community, even though she was loving working solo. “I like to be around people, but I like to be able to make all the decisions. I think that's why this works well for me because it's one thing that I do totally by myself. I have a rational phobia of asking for help or delegating, so, I think in most things I do, I look at it like that—‘Can I do this by myself?’ If so, I'm gonna go for it.” Still, she utilized her sleuthing skills to find and connect with other female tintypers in particular on Instagram, where they formed a group to freely bounce questions and ideas off of each other in a safe environment.

Muza expressed the strong need for that safe environment to exist because of some unsavory elements in the broader span of active tintype photographers. “I feel like the nature of this process kind of allows the predatory types to really use the uniqueness for their ideas and there’s just a lot of toxic masculinity in the wet-plate and tintype forums on Facebook, just a lot of rude stuff.” Muza was there to learn from and support others like herself and didn’t have time or energy to waste, especially given the growth in the field.

“[Currently] there are probably in the hundreds, not quite the thousands of people who are doing this for a living,” Muza tallies. “Instagram has a lot to do with it,” she confides. “It’s funny, because I didn't learn about the tintype process through Instagram, you know? I never saw tintypers online, ever. I read this article, and that's how I heard about it. But obviously now that I'm in that world, I feel like there are a lot, and they pop up a lot faster now because of TikTok. There are a few people who are very new to the process, and they're very good at TikTok and it's like … bam!” she says incredulously. “It’s not something that you can learn in school, so it's a process—you either teach yourself, which is kind of difficult, or it's something you take a workshop for, like I did. But at this point, there's enough of us that are at the workshop/teaching level.”

“I will say, I feel like I had a really hard time learning,” Muza pauses. “Some people who learn how to do this are really good at it, really fast. That was not me,” she emphasizes. “I really struggled for a really long time.” But troubleshooting the pitfalls of black and white photography, learning to work with light, modifying the chemistry, etc. took her to where she is today, a lauded, full-time tintype photographer with her own studio. “It’s little steps—it would be one step forward and then five steps back, for years. It really felt like that. I never really felt like, ‘Oh, I got this.’ Even to this day, I don't feel like that. I think that I have a lot fewer questions than I did. Or, I have a lot less fear of making mistakes or just like, I don't know … so many mistakes. And they’re so expensive. There was just so much sheer, devastating, waste and time and it was really frustrating,” she shares.

“But there was a time when I kind of came out of the fog; like the pictures literally didn't look foggy anymore,” Muza laughs. “I was always so scared because I never really knew what I did. I never was like, ‘Oh, I know why it did that.’ There’s still so much mystery in this process. Like you might think you know why something happened, and then it'll come back, even though you've fixed that. So, I'm just not afraid of bad things happening anymore, because I think it just comes from my experience. I know I have gotten better. I don't have all the answers, but I never really had an ‘aha moment’.”

Even years after learning the initial process and ironing out wrinkles, Muza is still gaining new perspectives and growing, emphasizing that although the path ahead looks as though it’s winding down, it could just be ramping up. “The amount of learning I did during COVID, just working outside,” she says of that unusual time, “I just learned so much just from taking pictures outside 10 times a day, like once a week at different times of the day at different people's houses. I think the light is one of the hardest parts. I love low light. When I look back at what a lot of my struggles were, I think that when I thought I wasn’t understanding my chemistry, I wasn’t understanding my light. And it wasn't a matter of someone who could have helped me. I literally had to just experience it.”

Just literally experiencing things is what female artists and entrepreneurs, especially, must do if they want to move forward with any goal or project: creating a vision, going through trial and error, taking matters into their own hands (and finding out who can support their vision) and  struggling (and sometimes failing), only to pick themselves up and try again. There are joys within the struggle, though, as Muza points out.

“There are people I photograph every year, and that's one of the coolest things, because I've been able to make a relationship with them. Some people will come every year, like on their anniversary or every year on their kid's birthday, and I feel so honored that people are making a document of their family and people they love with me. And it's really cool for me to see how far I hopefully have come.”

“It can be hard with one take,” Muza states. “So, when people come back, I know that they did get that experience. And that makes me very happy. You only get the one shot, then people go away. How do you know?  I always worry. It’s also how we feel about our own image and how we’re wrapped up about how we feel about ourselves. I just want everyone to walk away feeling beautiful or seen and made to be like who they are.” Muza’s first subjects were often herself. And although mostly utilitarian in nature, those self-portraits were clearly also testing and feeling out both sides of the camera—gaining that perspective of what it feels like to be on that other side and how to better get subjects to relax into “themselves”.

Our entire conversation up to this point has been taking in the journey of an artist as they find their way and relax into themself—it’s not instantaneous, glamorous, amazing, or any of those superlatives one might reflexively appoint to an out of the ordinary lifestyle or trade. We often fall into those traps of glamorizing things at surface level but when digging a little deeper, there’s a lot of the typical blood, sweat, tears (and bonus stuff like lost sleep, toxin exposures, debt, worry, failure, frustration, boredom and beyond). Still, artist journeys aren’t to be traded for anything—that rearview mirror glance can be a shudder-inducing affair, but the important thing is that the journey started, continued, and that a destination was attained and ground, covered. I feel like anyone who is sitting on the fence about not being “whatever” enough to do “xyz” could stand to take Muza’s journey to heart. “I definitely won't pretend I have all the answers,” she admits, “But I think it just happens as you get a little bit older—you start to just have less fear of failure, hopefully, or you'll be open to learning new things instead of closing in and curling into a shell. For young people, I hope that if the Internet does anything, that it shows them that there are tons of things they can do, and you can do all of them at once, if you have the curiosity.”

Drawing from her own curiosity-driven experiences, Muza recently put them to use in a fresh, even more poignant way, photographing other strong and like minded women, who are part of Milwaukee’s TEMPO, a group of nearly 500 executive women leaders from diverse industries for the film, Direct Positive, which was shown at the most-recent Milwaukee Film Festival. Milwaukee-based marketing firm Bader Rutter recently worked on rebranding TEMPO, which included filming interviews of each of the women and having Muza take portraits that were made into a gallery for the new TEMPO offices. As photographer for the women of TEMPO, Muza remarks, “It was so cool because I was actually in the room when they interviewed all those women. The film that they made was so beautiful and everyone was really proud. I was really proud. So, it was totally just a lucky thing that happened to me.”

Muza highlights one of the women whom she heard give her interview. “There was one woman—she founded a bank,” Muza says. “She was a Black woman who founded her own bank after bigger banks wouldn’t lend to Black families to get home loans.” Muza’s eyes widen. “Just the thought of that blows my mind. She fully knew and believed in herself that that was possible. And there was a certain amount of money that she had to raise in order to begin this process. And she far exceeded it.” Muza says. “It’s just so cool—the audacity, I guess. For anyone to think they could start a bank, especially in that time, was just incredible. I was so inspired by her story,” Muza emphasizes. “She is a little bit older, and she was talking about how at the end of her life, she’s not going to be worried about looking cute. She was like, ‘I wanna be worn down, and I wanna have fought and done, like, everything … I don't care about any of that stuff.’ She wanted a meaningful life, above all else; that was the most important thing to her. Overall, her message was: Don’t be scared—at the end of it all, people will remember what you did, not necessarily what you looked like.”

And just like that, Muza’s figured out the heartbeat and pure magic of making art—it’s not the art, itself. It’s the satisfying, hands-on process of getting there and the people you meet along the way.

About the author

Erin Wolf

88Nine Music Director