Materials of Hope: The Mosaic Art of J Muzacz
By: Sarah Muehlbauer for CODAworx
Art is nothing if not a message, specifically human, created through form, color, material, and technology to transfer meaning to another, to connect to our communities. An artist's eye makes what is immaterial material - rendering subjects with historic and social layers held one way by the artist, and a million different ways, decomposed and reconstituted in the minds of its audience.
Art that exists in the public sphere has primary visibility, and with that comes responsibility and a need for sensitivity to the work’s meaning and placement if art is to provide a centerpiece that holds true, long-term value within a community. The work of J Muzacz accesses these levels through research and cooperation, leaning into mosaic technique for its high-level craftsmanship, sophisticated aesthetic, and longevity, while using digital technology and community engagement to break the mold on what an artist can reflect and give back.
Lifelong civil rights leader Dolores Huerta (89) and daughter visit her “Si Se Puede” augmented reality mural by J Muzacz at Native Hostel in Austin, Texas.
Muzacz’s work evolved out of aerosol street art, informed by photography and digital collage tools at an early age. His public art works span a variety of styles from abstract to representational, from paint to stained glass to mosaic to fashion. His more recent works, in a style dubbed “digital impressionism,” combine the freedom and autonomy of street art in placing rich, visual icons in community space with the precision of a fine craft with a twist - an ancient mosaic technique with the aesthetic marker of the digital age, the humble pixel. Such works might contain over 50,000 individually placed tiles in a single mural.
Subjects like birds, flowers, portraits and eyes draw attention to familiar iconography while fusing it with a sense of the lens, of digital interpretation and amplification. It’s a style that simultaneously conceals and reveals detail intimacy that could only be known in the presence of the subject. It invokes a sense of nostalgia for the now, and sense of participation in the subject’s construction. These works invite viewers to examine the balance of the larger image within its surroundings... and close-up, to get lost in pattern, color, and the repetition of the grid. The tactile nature of the media is comforting in its regularity, its cool, heavy, shiny materials, and tamed sharp edges. It is the micro and the macro, the general and the specific that observers are left to contemplate.
In an age where casual photographs are ubiquitous, what does it mean to solidify a record in glass and mortar to instill a sense of beauty and meaning that lasts? What can we gather around, preserve, and celebrate in the present? Where painted street art may offer quicker and cheaper application, it can also be lost to the elements and time, or painted out with shifting sensibilities. Alternatively, Muzacz’s mosaic work aims for a more permanent place and presence, not only for passing spectators, but often through skill-building opportunities within the communities where they are installed.
As a long-time arts instructor, Muzacz has a practice of collaboration - hosting mosaic workshops and inviting participants to help with the install. While the approach requires substantial commitment, it pays dividends in establishing a care-taking relationship between the community, site, and work of art. He says, “As an artist when you collaborate and innovate, you can’t lose. You learn to trust your partners and participants, stakeholders, clients, volunteers. You have to listen first and then through innovative processes come up with the best, most unique and incredible work possible given the parameters.” In this regard, Muzacz and the Mosaic Workshop have teamed up with local non-profit Raisin in the Sun and the renowned Philadelphia Mural Arts Institute, working together on an important environmental justice project in Austin, Texas, currently underway.
Hybrid models of professional work and community involvement are inclusive, empowering, and participatory - gifting tools of expression to the public. Involvement on this scale builds a culture of art appreciation through hands-on-knowledge. Here, meaning exists not just in the work’s finished state, but in the process of making it. In an age where equity and care is needed broadly, it’s a refreshing take on process and community building that feels generous and also pragmatic. Muzacz says of working with mosaic, “Materials give me hope, and a chance to reinvent my practice, both studio and social.”
In the mosaic mural of Austin blues legend Roosevelt “Grey Ghost” Williams, made at the inaugural Mosaic Workshop at Something Cool Studios with this community approach, we see a combination of Muzacz’s unique digital impressionism technique, mixed with large blocks of brightly colored stained glass, textured tile and broken mirror, a nod to artist friend and mosaic contemporary Stefanie Distefano. Reflecting the sky, the mirror creates depth and aliveness in its shifting reflections, complemented with vibrant reds and blues framing a representational likeness of the legendary musician, warmly inviting. Whether it’s an attribute of the subject’s soul, or the abstraction of the tiles, there is a sense that something in his gaze, and this work, is worth knowing.
J Muzacz and Carmen Rangel of the Mosaic Workshop with their recently completed mural, “The Grey Ghost”. Photo by Tony Moreno.
Prior to working with mosaic, Muzacz spent years abroad - spray painting street art and graffiti murals at festivals, in tunnels and under bridges in Korea, Taiwan, Australia, New Zealand, and teaching English in a small fishing village in Japan. He credits his intimate experience with Japanese culture in informing his sense of workmanship, dedication, personal ethics, and the harmony he aims to create between his art and the environment. Concepts like wabi-sabi, the sense of valuing imperfections and the “unfinished,” inform and enhance the individuality of Muzacz’s work, allowing viewers entry through their own creativity. This worldview has served him well in honing an aesthetic that has pop appeal and refined application in public spaces.
While Muzacz continues to work in large-scale painted murals, he says his shift toward mosaic came from a desire to craft pieces of impressive magnitude and architectural permanence. He says, “It is fantastic when people experience the work and have that awestruck moment of realization that an image is made of such robust and timeless tesserae. Recycled glass and glazed ceramic for its vibrance, and tile and stone for its texture, mirror for its unrelenting shine.” Muzacz’s combination of techniques showcase a versatility within the medium of mosaic, especially in combination with paint, technology, light, and other artists and fabricators. It’s a rare, generative approach that creates space for innovation and collaboration with highly precise technical execution, and lasting works that mark the aesthetics of the moment, extending beyond to the timeless.