marchioness > archive > issue 2 > Heidi Bivens: Costuming on the Edge
Interview by Lara Delmage
Claire Milbrath: You Don't Have To Be An Extrovert To Be A F*cking Boss
Marchioness chats with the one and only Claire Milbrath about how the art and publishing world isn’t all puppies and peonies, as much as we’d like it to be.
© Claire Milbrath
I had the absolute pleasure of interviewing artist and EIC extraordinaire Claire Milbrath. For those who don’t know, Milbrath is the brains behind the wonderful Editorial magazine, the Montreal-based fashion and art quarterly that platforms emerging artists of all disciplines and breaks the mould of traditional magazine design in its championing of a naive, honest aesthetic. She created Editorial without knowing anything about magazines, her only agenda being to provide herself and her peers with a platform for their artistic practice. To this day Editorial maintains this DIY aesthetic and philosophy despite its growth in acclaim. Milbrath juggles running Editorial with the creation of her own artwork which details the trials and tribulations of her fictional alter-ego, Poor Gray, who is often found walking his poodles and bathing in dreamy sun-filled interiors. When asked about her work, Milbrath is often dismissive of her abilities, but this is not to be misconstrued with self-deprecation. It is in this very dismissal that she finds artistic strength, as instead of allowing her mistakes to deter her from making, she uses these setbacks to her advantage. We all have something to learn from this attitude toward failure in this progress obsessed day and age wherein failure is not synonymous with the opportunity to learn and to revel in one's own naivety. Often we see successful, talented figures like Milbrath as worlds away, as faultless aspirational individuals who we’d one day hope to be like. Milbrath demystifies this fascination with artistic success and the way we put people on pedestals, as she discloses that even an EIC of a sexy ass magazine who makes sexy ass art has anxieties and obstacles, just like the rest of us. In this interview we discuss the ins and outs of running a publication; the trials and tribulations of festishisation in art and gendered double standards within it; and the importance of balancing the appeasement of your adult self and inner child.
I was so excited to talk to you because I’m embarrassingly inspired by your DIY attitude; starting a magazine without any experience so you could platform your work and the work of your peers, painting without going down the conventional route of going to art-school and all that, it must’ve taken a lot of guts and self-assurance. Where did you get this confidence to try despite the odds from?
That’s so nice, thank you. I started the project very small. I’m risk-averse, probably from a lack of self-confidence. For the first issue I only printed like 75 copies because I thought no one would want it. I dip my toe in, and move forward only when I have assurance based on experience. Sometimes I wonder what the magazine would be like, if I had more confidence.
It’s really cool how you’ve turned your, for lack of a better word, ‘inexperience’ into an asset. You’ve said before that Poor Gray inhabits a world confined to what you can paint, but through that you’ve built a world that is distinctly his. The same goes for Editorial magazine, as you’re not afraid to push the boundaries of design and content. Do you feel that your lack of experience enabled you to push the boundaries of publishing?
I think experience can create obstacles a lot of the time. If we’ve been burned by something in the past, we’re less likely to try it again. I value naivety even if it can lead to messy mistakes. I think my lack of design knowledge makes the magazine unique in a sense, in that it might look wrong or weird.
It must be incredibly difficult juggling being EIC of a magazine and an artist. There must be some days where you feel so drained creatively. How the hell do you manage?
I think most artists feel this challenge, unless they’re lucky enough to focus solely on art-making. Juggling your responsibilities and your creativity is difficult, because it’s appeasing both your adult self and your inner child. I spend months putting together an issue, financing it, releasing it, and then, of course I struggle to get into that childlike playfulness that creativity requires. My trick now is to take long breaks. I haven’t been working on the magazine or even opening my computer for the last 2 months. It feels naughty, but I’ve been painting every day.
Many of the shoots in Editorial are self-styled, why do you go for this aesthetic?
I lost interest in fashion editorials suddenly, it felt vapid and like a capitalist exercise. The thing I love about fashion is self-expression, the inherent sense of style we all have. So the self-styled editorials focus on that, just people with great natural style.
In both Editorial and your personal artistic work what strikes me is the unwavering sense of humour that never ceases to shine through, something that is often missing from the art and fashion spheres. Is this purposeful, or just a happy accident?
There’s a time and a place for serious art and content. I don’t know if fashion is one of those places, but I can appreciate heavy art. I also have a need for humour, we need more of it. Things are too sad. Humour is relatable, it brings us together.
One word I feel perfectly describes Editorial is Irreverent. So many publications state that they’re doing cutting-edge, innovative work, platforming off-the-wall artists and championing creativity above all else. After working in the publishing world, you quickly discover that this is a lie, and that magazines are largely at the mercy to the whim of advertisers in order to stay afloat. How do you avoid this and preserve your aesthetic and principles?
It’s easy to maintain your integrity when you’re financially independent. But that’s hard to sustain, it’s difficult not having money. That’s why there is no Editorial office, or full-time staff, we all have other jobs to help. If I was offered a bunch of money from a brand in exchange for giving up creative control…I just don’t think I’d be interested.
I love how looking at your paintings it's like I’m watching a story unfold, like a luxurious, campy telenovela. It’s the same with Editorial in a way; telling the stories of all these wonderful artists. Do you see yourself as a story-teller?
I like that, I hadn’t thought of Editorial as a form of storytelling. But I do love stories, describing artists to people. My paintings are very much narrative.
In an interview with Never Apart you said that through painting you hoped to do away with the gender norms you felt bound by while working in the fashion industry. I had no idea you worked in fashion! What was your role?
I was a photographer, mostly shooting editorials. It was fun! But I didn’t like getting pigeon-holed into the female-making-work-about-female-body thing.
Do you think that these aforementioned norms are becoming more fluid, with high-fashion brands channelling a more androgynous aesthetic, or do you think that this, too, is performative?
I’m suspicious of all brands. It’s performative, and a money grab, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s harmful. I like to think, as a whole, we’re getting more loose about gender.
I feel like everyone’s a bit like Poor Gray, his characterisation so intensely personal. Why do you think that people have an affinity with your character?
I would hope they do… That makes me feel nice, imagining people relating to him. I’m not sure though.
I’ve always wondered, when you read what people have written about your work, like talking about the symbolism of the bathroom space, how does it make you feel? When people have read my creative writing they’re always picking out things that I never meant to happen...but they just did. Sometimes it makes me feel cleverer than I actually am. Do you ever read it and think “wow, they’re barking up the wrong tree with that one!”, or “ooo that’s clever, let's say that is why I wrote that!”?
I know what you mean. I’m not very articulate, and have always been more interested in image-making, so I’m happy with that aspect of the art world - there’s people who analyze it and write about it so I don’t have to. My artwork is straight-forward, so not many people miss the mark in their reviews.
Your work is both sexual without being objectifying which is so, for lack of a better word, refreshing. Not naming any names, but it seems that so many (cis-male) artists really get that balance wrong and end up going down the objectification route. Is this line between the sensual imagery and objectifying imagery something that you consciously navigate?
It’s difficult to navigate. I’ve tried to ween off sexuality in my work recently, and I’m not sure why. I love pornographic/erotic art, I just don’t know how involved I want to be in that conversation. I also love objectifying male bodies, I love male bodies. I don’t think women/femmes/gays are the only people allowed to make hyper-sexed work. So why can it feel sketchy when cis men do? I’m not sure, it’s interesting.
You’ve said before in interviews that you’re happy working from the comfort of your home (as a fellow introvert I can totally relate), which also seems to be reflected in your artwork. Now that the outside actually poses a threat to us (through climate change and global pandemic), have you found yourself yearning for the outside, or have you found yourself retreating more?
I moved recently to a small town to be closer to nature. Being outside is really important to me. In the past few years, I’ve definitely retreated socially. I live a grandma life.
I would love to live inside one of your paintings, they’re so airy, bright and campy. I was wondering, if you could live inside a painting, which would it be and why?
Probably a field of flowers, by an Impressionist painter.
Finally, I feel like many young creatives who read Marchioness are dying for some advice from you! What would you say to others trying to start an independent magazine, especially during seemingly never-ending pandemic?
Just go for it! Staying busy is my cure for depression. Self-publishing can be rewarding even if the finished product connects with just one other person. Making a zine, or a group-project, is a great way to connect with others, as making art can be isolating.