Claire Nelson-Lifson and Claire Warhus discuss their role in Madison’s art and music communities.
It’s easy to complain about a lack of goings-on in a small city or town’s music and arts scene. It’s easy to attribute boredom or frustration to a particular geographic location’s shortcomings—a lack of people, bands, community support, or resources. Yet, there always seems to be a small grip of people who maintain a small DIY scene’s lifeforce, and demonstrate to those around them what you can accomplish with little to no money, some friends, and a drive to make things happen. Claire Warhus and Claire Nelson-Lifson are two women who make things happen in Madison—be it through the art they produce, the music they play, zines they create, or shows they book. Warhus’ recognizable aesthetic is now seen everywhere from screenprinted show posters to her custom Snaggle Tooth Ouija boards to her zines Crucial Twat and How It Feels. Nelson-Lifson is a familiar presence in several Madison bands (including power-pop outfit Proud Parents and psych-pop trip Disembodied Monks) and co-publisher of the zine and compilation series Toothtaker, and offers a crucial feminist outspokenness to Madison’s DIY culture. Zines produced by both Claires (alongside other lady co-conspirators) in the past few years have sparked creative output and ongoing dialogues surrounding such issues as sex-positivity, feminist identity, and the media’s impact on our relationships and psyches. Recently, I talked with both Warhus and Nelson-Lifson about their perspectives on DIY culture, what inspires them, and navigating local scenes and life as creative feminist people. (Full disclosure: These two are friends of mine and I have contributed writing to Crucial Twat. Claire Warhus also has done illustration work for Tone Madison.)
Tone Madison: What inspired you to start making art?
Claire Warhus: I’ve been making art since I can remember. Six-year-old Claire was just as stubborn as 26-year-old Claire, and would refuse to leave the art table. This resulted in me looking like an idiot when I hadn’t learned to read like the other kids, but also meant I could draw Pocahontas better than any of those chumps. I also spent a lot of time at the art museum since my dad worked there. Wandering the galleries and regularly exposing my feeble pea brain to beautiful images probably had a lot to do with my “inspiration” and intrigue with art. Georgia O’Keeffe was my favorite. I still like any kind of art that has vaginas in it. I’d say being a bullheaded little shit who had the privilege of spending her time amongst masterpieces definitely had something to do with my gravitation toward art.
Tone Madison: What relationship does your art share with DIY culture?
Claire Warhus: I started out doing posters for local shows in local basements. Meeting kids who were playing in bands and organizing national tours themselves opened my eyes to a lot of possibilities. If my idiot friends could figure out how to write and record albums, screenprint their own shirts, and book themselves shows all the way to California and back, basically anything was possible. You didn’t have to get signed by some major label or rely on companies to make your merch. Fuck, if you learned how to garden you didn’t even have to rely on the grocery store to get your food. This new self-possessed outlook on life had me rethink how I was approaching the idea of an “art career.” I had taken a couple figure drawing classes and enrolled in a BFA program at the UW, but I was already hesitant about college. Having never taken well to traditional schooling (i.e. doing what I’m told for the sake of doing what I’m told), I only made it about a month into the program before dropping out and running away. I was determined to make art and make a career of it, but my way. I am toying with the idea of going back to school these days, or perhaps apprenticing, but I have gotten this far by doing it all myself—booking galleries, teaching myself new techniques, figuring out how to self publish, etc. I owe my perseverance to the DIY scene that helped me get my start doing dumb posters of skeletons shitting all over walls, and will forever take on low-paying or pro bono jobs for others who are striving to do it the same way.
Tone Madison: You’ve made a number of zines over the last few years—you and Hilary Davis put out multiple issues of the joke-filled + femme-positive Madison institution known as Crucial Twat from 2013 to 2014 and recently you’ve been working on How it Feels, “a zine dedicated to the awesome and nasty realities of sex.” Why is zine-making important to you?
Claire Warhus: Zine making and other self-publishing is important because without it the entire publishing industry would be run by money, and money usually has nothing but bullshit to say.
The majority of what is easily available to read (talking non-fiction) is propaganda for an incredibly flawed and harmful system. I can’t just sit back knowing that young girls are seeing Us Weekly covers declaring their bodies nasty without making some kind of counterpoint available. Large-scale publications, paid for with large scale amounts of money, help keep the status quo, but the status quo sucks for most people. Zines allow anyone and everyone to get their messages out as well—perhaps on a smaller scale at first—but every movement and change has to start somewhere. The smallest voice is better than none.
Tone Madison: Your zines balance powerful feminist messaging with jokes. What relationship do you see between feminism and humor?
Claire Warhus: Being a lady is fuckin hard. Being an outspoken feminist lady is extra hard, and draining, and never ending. Without humor, I don’t think any of us would survive. It’s absurd how much shit women have to deal with, so we learn to laugh about it. It’s easier to keep moving, even to be heard, if the constant struggles are broken up with humor. Fart jokes are some of my favorites since they lighten the mood while still poking sexism right in the eye. Ladies do fart, sometimes it’s even a blood fart, and it’s ALWAYS hilarious.
Tone Madison: Most of your zines are collaborative and feature diverse contributors’ perspectives. How do you go about soliciting and choosing submissions for your zines?
Claire Warhus: We reach out to people in our communities and try to get as wide an array of contributors as possible. Once the submissions start rolling in and I get a sense of whose voices are already represented, I seek out others. I’ll often privately message individuals who could offer a fresh perspective or different experience. As one white Madison-based lady, my scope is rather narrow, so looking for ways to reach and help project other voices is always a priority. I really like doing How It Feels because a lot of the submissions are anonymous. Initials don’t imply gender, race, or socioeconomic standing, so there are no social barriers affecting how people can relate to and interpret the stories. It’s just human to human.
Tone Madison: You make art like custom Ouija boards, posters, and other illustrations by commission through the handle Snaggle Tooth Arts.Where did the name Snaggle Tooth come from?
Claire Warhus: When I first moved to town, I was racing my bike behind that weird strip mall across from Whole Foods. I think where Penzey’s Spices is and maybe a crappy floral store. Anyway, it was dark and without a lot of streetlights back there I didn’t see the old eroding speed bump fast approaching. My front wheel locked into the cement mound where it met the road and the back of my bike threw my body over the handlebars, pounding my face into the ground. I knocked out the majority of my front tooth that night and have been on a crazy dental journey ever since. Being the new girl with a jagged front tooth made me pretty memorable, though. So I kept the moniker and hope that eventually my art will be as memorable as the face.
Tone Madison: When I was writing that last question, I felt hesitant to call Snaggle Tooth Arts a brand or a business because your commissioned art practices feel like a personalized alternative to more commercial art vendors. What are your thoughts on making a living as a DIY artist while navigating a very profit-driven consumer culture?
Claire Warhus: It’s haaaaaard. I’m constantly struggling with which commissions to take and how much money I can charge for certain projects and still feel good about it. I have raised my prices since I started, because I learned that a lady’s gotta eat more than just a can of corn for dinner. But, I still make sure to take on fun projects or causes I care about and to do them for free whenever possible. As long as I am able to occasionally help someone pro bono and can turn down work that I find demeaning or ignorant, I think I’m on the right path. Charging what I am worth, as long as the art I am creating does some form of good, will never make me feel like I am selling out.
Tone Madison: Can you recommend us some artists that you like?
Claire Warhus: Women in my local Midwest scene are fuckin killin it constantly. There’s a group of ladies in Madison writing the ToothTaker zine, which is great. Everyone who recently helped out and sold at the Black Sheep Bazaar (a craft fair and benefit for Planned Parenthood I helped organize) blew my mind. Lauden Nute’s a fantastic screen printer and is always pushing me to branch out and try new techniques or styles and just get better in general. My next-door neighbor and lady crush Lacey Smith has an insanely good eye for design and is under the handle LuLuWeird Designs. Josh Davis in Chicago got me my first big city art show and is consistently making art that makes my jaw drop. Man I dunno there are too many to list! I habitually stalk artists on Instagram too. Lately I’ve been OBSESSED with kikyz1313. She’s a Mexico-based artist doing ink, graphite, and watercolor pieces. She depicts children and animals in surrealist settings with decay or deformities but an overall peacefulness. It’s so fucking good. I honestly think staring at her work and others like her is what has driven me to reconsider school. I love what I’ve done so far and how much of a name I’ve made for myself, but damn, I just wanna keep getting better.
Tone Madison: What does DIY culture mean to you?
Claire Nelson-Lifson: DIY culture to me means not sitting around idly waiting for “opportunity” to strike. It means having an idea and having the drive and impatience to put the idea in motion. It means supporting the people and local businesses in the community. It is being able to go on tour without being signed to a label, just knowing the right people to talk to. It is a giant middle finger to “the man” and larger corporations that want to squelch creative minds and freethinking.
Tone Madison: You have a number of ongoing music projects in the Madison area. How did you get started playing music?
Claire Nelson-Lifson: I currently play guitar and sing in Proud Parents, drums in Disembodied Monks, and sporadically play bass in the Momotaros. I have always found solace in music, and started playing guitar when I was 12. After a string of bands that hardly practiced and hardly existed, Tyler Fassnacht (of Fire Retarded and Proud Parents) and I formed Giant People along with some other friends of ours. There were some lineup changes over the years, with Tyler and I remaining the two constants. During that time I got involved with the New Years Gang, playing bass until we broke up in November of 2013. I was also the interim bassist for Fire Retarded that summer. I joined the Non-Travellin’ Band around that time because the drummer wanted to play bass and I also wanted the challenge of playing drums. The Non-Travellin’ Band is now known as the Disembodied Monks, just with a variation in members.
Tone Madison: How do you think a smaller music scene like Madison’s can effectively support women and non-binary musicians?
Claire Nelson-Lifson: This question is harder for me to answer. Having only lived in Madison, I haven’t experienced other scenes in larger cities. I personally try to educate my male bandmates about misogyny I experience and try to influence the perspective of the males supporting the scene. Even though the scene is smaller and supportive, I still witness and unfortunate amount of misogyny and toxic masculinity. I am excited to see a lot of female and non-binary musicians performing right now in Madison. I don’t know exactly how a smaller scene can benefit and support more marginalized musicians, but I have certainly watched the scene become less male-dominated, which is so refreshing, to put it simply. I haven’t had anyone tell me to smile more while playing in a while, which is also VERY COOL. I really hope that when folks see me performing that it is inspiring, if only slightly, to get out there and do their own thing.
Tone Madison: What advice would you offer young women or non-binary folks who are interested in playing music but don’t quite know how to get started?
Claire Nelson-Lifson: Just do the dang thing! There is no right or wrong way to get involved initially. Go to shows and meet other people (which can be scary) and find those that are also excited about starting a band. I am incredibly grateful to have such wonderful collaborators in my life, most of which I have gotten involved with just by being a part of the scene and sharing interests. You don’t need anyone’s permission to make music or put your art out there. For every time someone tells you not to do something, harness their bad energy and turn that into your own power. You will have bad shows, you will mess up, but it isn’t the end of the world. Everything is a learning experience.
Tone Madison: You and two other women, Aiki Coxhead and Mary Begley, recently started a new local zine called Toothtaker. What motivated you all to start Toothtaker and where did the name come from?
Claire Nelson-Lifson: I was awfully seasonally affected last winter, and needed a creative outlet to survive. I posted something on facebook about putting together a zine of feelings, and Aiki said she wanted to be involved and had the name Toothtaker. I had yet to meet Mary, but she sent me an email after hearing of the zine and also wanted in. Mary was a part of other zines in college, and her experience was crucial. Without her I think Aiki and I wouldn’t have been organized enough to pull it off.
Tone Madison: Considering that each issue of Toothtaker is released alongside a compilation cassette tape, how do you go about soliciting contributions for both the zine and the tape?
Claire Nelson-Lifson: The internet and social media have been very helpful as far as being in contact with people all over. We made a lot of posts on Facebook about accepting submissions for both zine and tape. Aiki has been involved in other magazines and literary communities, and has a lot of connections with writers. Being a part of the rock and roll sphere for a number of years, I asked a lot of my friends that play music if they wanted to submit music for the tape. The first issue was wildly successful, and exceeded my expectations.
Tone Madison: Your second and most recent issue of Toothtaker asked for submissions to respond to this theme: “Peripheral people connected by the grid; how technology feeds our perceptions.” What was the inspiration for this theme?
Claire Nelson-Lifson: The theme came about after lots of lengthy discussions about social media and “the grid” and how they affect our relationships with others and ourselves. We live in a very strange time where you can present yourself on the internet in any way you want, and others have the ability to see that side of you before seeing your whole being. We have all had experiences with people solely on the internet before dealing with these people in real life, if at all. It seemed fitting to have the second issue be about social media because the zine came to fruition through being connected in the first place. We have had a lot of people talk to us in person about having some sort of forum or gathering to discuss these ideas further. There’s nothing planned yet, but I think it would be great to have a setting where these topics and ideas can be exchanged.
Tone Madison: Any plans yet for the third issue?
Claire Nelson-Lifson: We are still recovering from the sleep deprivation of getting the second issue together, so we don’t have any concrete plans yet.