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Portrait of an artist

BFA degree student, Illustrator makes a name for himself in Pittsburgh

If you’re a fan of the Pittsburgh music scene or a CityPaper reader, you’ve probably seen Joe Mruk’s illustrations.

The 2010 graduate of Cal U’s Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) program is one of Pittsburgh’s most prolific artists — and his reputation is growing.

The website for Mruk’s home-based business, Red Buffalo Illustration, displays his imaginative woodworks, paintings and mixed-media pieces.

But his intricate, colorful posters and album art have let Mruk make illustration a full-time career after his BFA degree from Cal U.

He’s drawn posters for dozens of bands, illustrated CD covers and liner notes, and created posters, fliers, programs and T-shirt designs for music festivals throughout the region.

Food trucks and foundations have commissioned Mruk’s work. Tröegs, an independent brewery in central Pennsylvania, used his art in a promotion for its January ale.

Last winter, Pittsburgh CityPaper asked the Lawrenceville resident to illustrate its “Most Listable City” front page.

“Joe has a unique illustration style, and his work is everywhere around the city,” says Cal U graphic design professor Greg Harrison.

“It’s become his profession — and he’s certainly arrived.”

Former BFA student Joe Mruk draws an illustration.

Finding his tribe

Mruk grew up in Plum Borough, Pa. “I used to trace and draw my own Sunday comics when I was a little kid,” he says.

“But I didn’t understand what graphic design was, or that it was a thriving industry.

“Not until I went to Cal U did I end up meeting creative people. The first real artists I ever met were hanging out in Vulcan Studio.”

An “apathetic” student in high school, Mruk blossomed academically and artistically in the BFA degree program’s small classes, where he studied painting and graphic design.

He thrived on interactions with Cal U faculty who also are practicing artists. And he became friends with students who shared his creative ambitions.

“College was awesome,” he recalls. “I was finally doing stuff that was relevant to what I wanted to do in my life.”

After class, Mruk helped to organize student art exhibitions in Cal U’s Vulcan Gallery. He made himself “the go-to guy for promotional materials” representing students’ work, and he was gallery director in his senior year.

Since graduating from the BFA program, he’s stayed in touch with Harrison, who owns “at least a dozen” pieces by his former student, and with Cal U alumni who are active in the region’s art scene.

His business relies heavily on word of mouth, and Mruk says he’s grateful for both the skills and the connections he made at Cal U.

“Good design is a skill set that feeds art and illustration, and I learned that in school. Color theory embedded itself in my mind in ways I never realized until I began doing this in earnest.

“And Cal U gave me the connections and opportunities that led to new experiences I couldn’t previously imagine.”

From paper to pixels

Mruk’s illustrations evoke a mood and tell a story, often with animals as stand-ins for humans. Drooling wolves, toothy warthogs and hipster raccoons, all in bright colors, populate his designs.

“They’re a lot more fun to draw than anything else,” says Mruk, whose Red Buffalo brand alludes to his colorful creatures.

Stray bits of culture — from sci-fi movies to historical architecture — find their way into his work. When he’s designing band posters, Mruk immerses himself in the music. His drawings pick up imagery from songs and reflect the band’s genre, whether it’s heavy metal, indie rock or psychedelic pop.

“I try to show the feeling you get from the music. Anger or sadness, humor or something jovial … the entire spectrum of emotions. I like to challenge myself.”

Mruk’s artwork emerges first in pencil, growing more detailed as his fantasy takes shape. Then he goes over the sketch in ink, creating clear, firm lines with a fine-tipped pen.

When every element has been carefully outlined, Mruk scans the drawing into his computer and layers color onto the digitized image.

“I learned to use (Adobe) Illustrator and Photoshop at Cal U,” he says. Now technology is an integral part of his process.

Mruk has screen-printed his designs, but most of his clients prefer digital images they can post on a website, share on social media or print on demand.

A band might refresh its poster supply just before a concert. A festival may use Mruk’s artwork on T-shirts, coffee mugs, web banners and newspaper ads. In the meantime, fans share his illustrations on Facebook and Instagram.

“I typically deliver a digital product to the client,” Mruk says. “It’s highly detailed, so it can be printed at any size. The client can handle the printing. … I’m off to the next project.”

Shop talk and music

When he gets up from his drawing board, Mruk seldom stands still.

He’s taught drawing to kids at the Wash Arts community center in Washington, Pa., and coordinated art lessons at a summer camp on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota.

He organizes events, as he did at the Vulcan Gallery, to showcase the work of Pittsburgh musicians and artists.

He uses Facebook and Instagram to advertise his business, and maintains his website at redbuffalo.org.

Once a month he talks shop in Lawrenceville with fellow “editorial artists” in the National Cartoonists Society.

He’s also editing and illustrating a book series under the Young Rabbit brand. Fight Stories, Ghost Stories and Medicine Stories collect tales by regional writers. Six more books are planned.

And he never stops networking.

“The music community in Pittsburgh is very tight-knit. I go to their shows. That’s part of my job, and I enjoy it,” he says.

Harrison sees his former student’s reputation growing, in Pittsburgh and beyond.

“No one is going to get tired of seeing his images,” he says. “Joe’s done so much work; he knows everybody in the city.

“He is fast becoming a famous illustrator — and he’s already doing what he loves.” 

By Christine Kindl, communications director at Cal U

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