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Q&A With Joe Mruk, Artist Behind "As Long as the Heart..."

You will find below a Q&A with Pittsburgh-based artist Joe Mruk, the one behind the SFCC The Club theme As Long as the Heart. To know more about Joe and why Alex wanted to work with him to give a visual identity to the SFCC this year, you can read this story that has been previously published.


Q: First of all, thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions for our people to discover a little more about.

A: No problem!


Q: Can you share with us a quick overview of what got you into art and illustration?

A: I drew most of my childhood, getting deeply into music as a teenager and drawing what the music made me feel. I drew a lot of dirty cityscapes and people from skate ads as a teenager, and I suppose skate culture was my first introduction to underground art. I used to think I wanted to be a writer in high school, but the art thing really took hold in college and I went from there!


Q: Was it what you had always envisioned to do?  Was there any other dreams you had, or has art always been at the center of your life?

A: Definitely tons of reading and too much television early on! I've always had a hyperactive mind and when I see something I like, it's a total magnet for me. I never questioned the impulse, and my school notebooks had more drawings in them than actual notes. And I wrote two full length novels and dozens of stories and poems by early college, all unpublished of course. They are certainly the work of an inexperienced young man, but I'm still extremely proud of them. One was a seafaring action story and the next was about a few New Mexico teenagers who experience a friend's death. The impulse to write faded as art took over, but as a result of that writing experience, much of the art I made had an inherent narrative quality. I fully plan on making a strong return to writing now that I've grown and experienced so much more of what life has to offer. I'm especially aiming toward children's books and young adult literature.


Q: Have you had any doubts about the realization of such a vision along the way? If so, what were they and how were you able to conquer them?

A: One of the reasons I've taken so long to truly begin some of the children's books I have in mind is because I do have fears about spending a lot of time on noncommissioned work only to be rejected by publishers. It's still a process I have yet to begin, and rejections are common. The last ten years of artmaking and producing commissioned work have really helped to grow my confidence. In my clearest of minds, I have no doubt I'll be able to get something published at some point as long as I apply myself and work through the process. I'm so thankful and fortunate to have such supportive friends and clients, and a family that encouraged my art skills.


Q: You worked with many people, in different kinds of environments and in all sorts of conditions. Is your creative motion the same regardless of the project, or does it change every time? Can you tell us more about any recurring creation process you have?

A: The process of working with clients changes every time there's a new project on the horizon. I really relish that chimerical aspect of working with different types of artists and minds. It means I get to utilize different parts of myself, different emotions and vibes that are all part of me yet disparate. Some aspects of the process remain constant, like the brainstorming and immersion sessions that happen early on. If I'm working with a musician, I must immerse myself in the music, of course, before I start. I write down words in a free-associative process, think of colors and vibes, and share those feelings with the client before the true process begins. And what happens afterward is always not quite what I originally imagined or expected, which is a blissful thing to me.


Q: Besides “As Long as the Heart”, what is the creation you are the proudest of and why?

A: It's nearly impossible for me to name a favorite project because everything I make comes from a deep part of me. I will say that I do especially love making album art and maps these days!



Q: Is there one particular project that you would have liked to go deeper in, or find another angle to? I mean, every project is so different, I guess it’s not always as simple as it seems to truly “touch it”.

A: Besides future books I'd like to work on, I certainly often find myself stifled by the mere fact that a project only requires one or a few pieces of artwork, because I'll often develop a character for that illustration and think "Man, there's more of a story to tell there!" beyond that brief glimpse.

 


Q: Alex has wanted to work with you for a while and it was important to introduce you to his people. What was it like to work on “As Long as the Heart” knowing just how personal his album “Windows in the Sky” is?


A: It's always intense in a way knowing you're approaching someone's work from a peripheral angle, intermingling your thoughts with that which you perceive of theirs. Especially if that work feels intensely personal. But this project wasn't difficult at all, because I found a lot of myself reflected in Alex's music and went with those impulses.


Q: What was the pivotal moment when you knew “ok, that’s the idea, that’s the central element I was looking for”?

A: For Alex, the pivotal moment was visualizing a physical landscape, or series of landscapes, when listening to "Windows in the Sky" and trying to sharpen how those felt to me in a rough draft. Of course, I couldn't use every element I thought of, so I had to choose some of the most resonant ones. The album gave me a lot of architectural ideas that weren't quite modern, or connected with a much older people than ours. The dramatic sweep of the record helped to give me the vibe I'd like to connect with the architecture, which I wanted to look windswept, overgrown and private.



Q: Do you have any doubt before sharing that idea when you collaborate with other artists who have an identity as clear as Alex Henry?

A: Sharing initial ideas is never difficult. Sharing the rough draft is always slightly intense, but musicians have been such an agreeable lot to work with. I hope that's because I think like them (I'm really into music more than visual art, myself!). Plus I make music too with my project Saint Deadmule, so that's given me a chance of making visual ideas into soundscapes myself. The rough drafts don't always work out, of course, and that's fine. That's life. Some clients have particular ideas that they can or can't articulate, and it's up to me to get as close as I can. With Alex, this process was easy!


Q: Is there any form of creative inhibition that comes into play at some point, especially when it implies intimate emotions such as grief and healing? Can you share what was Alex Henry’s initial reaction when you shared the core of your vision?

A: I don't have much trouble coming up with personal inner visions. In fact it's a deeply therapeutic process that's become increasingly natural. I'm lucky to have a chance to use some of these visions for paid work! Alex shared with me that the death of his father was a part of what informed the album and emerged in some of the symbolism, and I could absolutely connect with that because my dad passed away last summer and I'm finding all sorts of ways to work through the grief with artwork. I think that's part of the reason why this project was an easy one. The tougher ones are sometimes the "less personal" ones! Alex's response was very kind and I was humbled by his words. He has shown so much respect for not just working artists but the true spirit and near-magic of the collaborative process itself and what it signifies. That makes it all the more enriching an experience to work with such a thoughtful soul.



Q: Alex Henry has been enthusiastically praising what he calls “your gift to visually incarnate emotions rather than just illustrate them”. Do you see it that way? Is it something that you conscientiously want to touch, or is it unconsciously part of your creative process? It might sound a little esoteric, but since such a perspective often comes in Alex Henry’s choice of collaborators, I was wondering how you interpret his affirmation.

A: Haha, well I suppose that if it happens, it's mostly natural. And that only comes from repeatedly doing this while reconciling with your own doubt every time. I think it would be harder to come up with something that I "felt" less. Like straight cold design work, or web design, or logos. Logos are particularly tough for me because I can't "feel" them as much if they're not paired with an illustration. I love working with words and names, but mainly when they emerge naturally from an illustrative environment.


Q: I know that Alex Henry rarely shares his insights about his creations - he likes to let people define their own feelings and perceptions. That being said, I would like to know what is your own personal take on your illustration? What does it mean for you? 

A: For me, the illustration symbolizes the broken but resilient architecture of a heart that glows with love, symbolized by the toothpick heart held up to the hummingbird's chest by saintly hands. I'm a nonreligious person but recognize the potency of religious imagery and pontificating hands feels to me a direct address to the conversations of the soul rather than the actual outside world. So what we end up with is a sort of courtyard of the soul--a place to feel safe and address those feelings about the outside world.


Q: Knowing that your creation will be sent all over the world, that this poster will be hung on walls in Russia, Australia, Japan, China, UK, all over Europe, and throughout the Americas, do you think that art has a healing role or a possible impact on people, whatever their politic or social vision might be? If yes, how? 

A: I mean, that's super humbling, of course! And absolutely--the art is meant to heal. It certainly is a restorative process to make the work. We live in a difficult world and I hope everyone cares to maintain the courtyard in their own soul architecture. Trees need trimming and paths need clearing, though we all let it get overgrown sometimes.





Q: Thank you so much for your generosity Joe, is there anything else you would like to share with the people who now have the privilege to know you a little better?

A: If there's anything else I'd like to share, it might be that people can check out my website at www.redbuffalo.org to see my whole portfolio or to contact me. Follow me on Instagram @redbuffaloill. My music is available at www.saintdeadmule.bandcamp.com!



Q: As the last question, I have to ask, especially knowing Alex Henry’s people’s enthusiasm towards “As Long as the Heart”, was that collaboration a one-off moment, or you would like to keep partnering with Alex Henry on any future project?

A: In a heartbeat. This project was a dream. Thanks for everything!

To discover a little more about Joe's creative universe: http://redbuffalo.org/
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