“Experiencing Danielle Mužina’s paintings at MadKat beside the river and the train tracks in Elizabeth was one of the first times I felt women were the subject of the sentence.”

By Emma Riva

Danielle Mužina’s favorite Catholic mystic is the martyred Saint Catherine of Siena. Or, as she offered as an alternative, there is also Saint Lucia, a woman who was so steadfast that a yolk of oxen couldn’t move her in the moments of her execution. Both women dedicated themselves to spirituality rather than marriage, and Saint Catherine cut off her hair and scalded herself with hot coils when her mother berated her to make herself more attractive for a prospective husband. . In Mužina’s paintings, the female self, embodied by saints who once had to gouge out their eyes or cut off their hair simply to exist outside of male desire, is now venerated and extolled.

Mužina, a painter and educator originally from Euclid, a lakeside neighborhood on the outskirts of Cleveland, grew up in a large Croatian family with Catholicism as a backdrop. That upbringing included that tradition’s strict expectations of femininity. Her October 2022 solo show, Quickening, featured a selection of paintings from her larger project Pink Apocalypse, many of which show figures with gaping pink stigmata wounds—a parade of bubblegum pink, defiant anti-martyrs.

Quickening debuted at MadKat Studios in Elizabeth, PA, a Monongahela Valley town just south of Pittsburgh. MadKat sits at a street corner next to where the Y46 bus from downtown Pittsburgh comes and goes every hour, across from a Rite Aid, a repurposed Gilded Age train car turned into the Elizabeth Express Kitchen Car, and the local lunch spot the Juicy Mango, which features a drink named after the gallery.

Mary Kate Noonan and partner Madeleine Boucher, both multi-disciplinary artists in their own right, founded MadKat together and opened it to the community after renovations in June 2021. The building, 215 Market St, was once a candy store, a butcher shop, and most recently a fishing bait-and-tackle shop. “Cleaning out that basement was our most trying time,” Boucher said, laughing. Noonan and Boucher met each other, and both met Mužina, in the art program at Edinboro University, now PennWest Edinboro.Mužina was a professor, Boucher and Noonan both students. Noonan and Mužina first encountered each other while the former was nude modeling for a life drawing class. Noonan’s dry sense of humor and ability to crack jokes while modeling made fast friends out of her and Mužina. “I kept having to pinch myself to keep myself from laughing at the things she said,” Mužina said.

I learned about MadKat’s existence through another Edinboro graduate, Claira Heitzenrater, whose work featured in their October Season of the Witch exhibition. Noonan and Boucher founded MadKat in part to “bring a bit of the thriving arts community of Edinboro that they had thrived within, to the blue-collar town of Elizabeth, Pennsylvania,” as Noonan states on their website.

There’s a narrative about what it’s like to be a woman-owned, queer-owned business in a Rust Belt river town, influenced by stereotypes and experts concerning the supposed backwards conservatism of rural communities. Boucher is a native of Elizabeth, and while it would be reductive to call western Pennsylvania some sort of progressive utopia for queer artists, the Elizabeth community has embraced their business. Community members they didn’t even know before brought them gift packages, including local Italian restaurant Fellini’s giving them free breadsticks, Snowy’s Espresso bringing chocolate-covered strawberries, and even the local Girl Scouts delivering cookies. “Small towns like a little bit of mystery,” Boucher said. “The mystery provoked people to come in.” Noonan added: “MadKat is way less daunting than a traditional gallery space. People are innately anxious, especially when it comes to the arts and they haven’t been introduced to it. You go in and things are expensive, you can’t touch them.”

MadKat never assumes its gallery-goers financial backgrounds, functioning as much as a learning space as an exhibition. The works Noonan and Boucher showcase reflect both their disdain for elitism and gatekeeping, as well as their willingness to engage in difficult conversations. In Quickening, Mužina’s work is provocative and powerful, often drawing on her experiences as a sexual assault survivor. It’s not the sort of show you can glance at and simply walk away from. Though MadKat’s physical layout is small, each time I’ve visited I find myself spending hours soaking up the work.  The combination of the neon pinks with the sutures, blood, spiked baseball bats, and eerie Catholic undertones is more than a gimmick –  it’s a visual landscape for the connection between womanhood and violence. “We have strong cultural connotations around the color pink,” she said. “I wanted to both reclaim it and make it feel violent, threatening, and acrid.” In Internal, a rhomboid shape showing a shining axe placed on a gutted piece of lumber covers Mužina’s cervix. The cut of the wood is clean and the axe sits motionless. The whole scene glows an ominous pink, not the pink of a dollhouse but the poisonous yet peaceful glow of radioactive fallout.

Given the apocalyptic nature of Mužina’s work, it might surprise some that she also serves as an educator in the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion field. Reframe52, her DEI business, teaches sensitivity around gender, culture, and socio-economic class in the workplace. Pink Apocalypse differs from the typical revenge fantasy in that within the paintings, you can see Mužina’s real desire for change and meaning deriving from her experiences. “There’s a tension in the work between communication and the real violence of what traumatic experiences feel like,” she said.

In one painting entitled Not All 14 Century Rats, Mužina situates the viewer on the sidewalk of an alleyway, two of her aunts glaring down at the unfortunate victim on the curb. One holds a cigarette between her fingers, the other hands on her hips. “You don’t want to mess with someone’s mom or aunt,” Mužina said. Not All 14 Century Rats has a color palette of greys, browns, and greens, no pink in sight. “The women in my family like my grandma inspire me. She was very much a feminine archetype, big blonde hair. She’s glamorous and caring and nurturing and self-effacing, and I watched myself absorb those qualities.”

In Pink on the Inside, two sets of hands part Mužina’s hair to reveal a gaping pink suture. Her body is lain across the emerald velour couch that sits in her living room in Cleveland, the hands in her caramel hair both gloved in pink rubber. “With the parting of the hair, I wanted to show that it’s women’s work to help other women heal and talk about these issues,” she said, as we laughed about our shared sense that in a previous era we both might have been lobotomized. “The pinkness is emanating from inside the skull. It’s infectious.” Other works like Pink Slit play on the idea of the “hole” as a wound, both a stigmata and a yonic image. The vessel for a phallus that women’s bodies and selves are reduced to becomes the center of the narrative. “Your woman ancestors are giving you things to prepare you for the world, and you owe it to them to break the cycle,” Mužina said. The paintings are a powerful testament to how we relate to the women we came from.

Throughout history, societies on every continent have subjugated and oppressed women. It’s difficult to exist without feeling as if misogyny is a vile universal language. For most of my life, I struggled to see myself in the sexualized spaces women had to occupy in art, literature, music, or film. Experiencing Mužina’s paintings at MadKat beside the river and the train tracks in Elizabeth was one of the first times I felt women were the subject of the sentence. Women owned the studio space. Women painted the artwork. Women shared their stories and their dreams and their fantasies of vengeance and their declarations of love.

I have been writing about art for several years now, but Mužina’s paintings render me speechless. Maybe it’s my own background as the descendant of Slavic immigrants to Cleveland through my mother, maybe it’s my love of neon colors and kitsch, maybe it’s the way Mužina’s work reminded me of Lingua Ignota, a Providence-based hardcore musician whose musical performance art uses gothic religious imagery to act out elaborate revenge fantasies and painful memories. That musician gets her stage name from St. Hildegard of Bingen’s “lingua ignota.” a language the nun constructed for mystical purposes. Mužina’s paintings are a kind of mystical lingua ignota for women labeled intense and overbearing and strange, marginalized for living outside the patriarchy for one reason or the other. As the Monongahela River lapped at the banks of Elizabeth, I watched flecks of pink appear in the sunset when I left MadKat. Someone once told me the deepest, most saturated pinks in a sunset are from air pollution, not nature. How will I ever put into words what these paintings make me feel, I found myself thinking. The pink streaks in the western Pennsylvania sky gave me the only reply I needed.

Danielle Mužina’s Reframe52 uses art and music to help start conversations about social change, and further information about Pink Apocalypse can be found in its virtual gallery. MadKat Studios offers classes and events year-round by appointment via their website.

Emma Riva is the managing editor of UPan international online and print magazine that covers the intersections of graffiti, street art and fine arts. She is also the author of Night Shift in Tamaqua, an illustrated novel set in the Lehigh Valley. She lives in Pittsburgh, PA.