By Joey Grihalva
Wisconsin has some incredibly talented female artists. That is not an “alternative fact.”
But you might not know it if you went to any random concert, art gallery or comedy club. In an effort to address this gender imbalance, multiple venues in Milwaukee’s Riverwest neighborhood played host to a parade of female and female-identifying creatives for five days last week — from teenage rockers to soprano singers, visual artists to spoken word poets.
What was originally intended simply to be a basement party thank you to the inspiring women in Olivia Doyle’s life three years ago, has blossomed into Riverwest FemFest, possibly the state’s largest female-focused arts festival.
The third installment of FemFest took place amid an international outpouring of support for women and disapproval of President Trump. It also served as a fundraiser for the Milwaukee Coalition for Justice and the Milwaukee Women’s Center.
Rather than recap the festival, I interviewed over a dozen organizers and performers, allowing them to describe the significance of FemFest in their voice.
[All photos by Jessi Paetzke.]
Olivia Doyle, founder
I started it because I was feeling empowered by the women around me, to the point where it really changed my life. I went back to school. I started wanting more of myself because they reminded me that I deserve it. It was a truly powerful experience for me to meet all these women in Riverwest, so the first fest was really just a thank you. It was never meant to be what it is now.
Why is the diversity of arts at the festival important?
Because women and femmes are creative in other ways that aren’t just music. And we want to showcase as much of their creativity as we can.
Have there been any growing pains with the festival over the years?
This year especially has been a real learning process for us, with the expansion of everything that we’re including and also with how big we’re getting. We’re reaching a lot more people. So it’s really like a community event and there’s lots of different people in this community, so learning to be as inclusive as possible is a process.
What are some of the things you’re most proud of in terms of the festival?
As a whole, watching all these people perform that I love and I’m inspired by. I’m very proud to have created this platform. In terms of a specific moment, Jenna Knapp did spoken word, she’s a childhood friend of mine. Being able to introduce her and tell the audience why she’s so inspiring to me and then have her read her poetry, which people loved, it made me feel like a proud mom. It’s really wonderful to see all these people that I love and care about do what they love and care about.
Ellie Jackson, organizer and musician (Scape)
I’ve been involved in music and radio from an early age. I joined a community radio station when I was in college. When I got involved with music I realized there was like a 20-to-1 ratio between the bands I was playing that were male and the bands that were female. Not because I wanted to, but those were the numbers. I asked the station manager if I could do an all-female focused show and they told me that that was sexist. I said, “It doesn’t feel sexist though. The music industry is sexist!”
So for me FemFest is an opportunity to celebrate those female artists that I wasn’t given permission to celebrate before. Now we’re taking the permission. Riverwest is also where I live so the community here is very important to me. But certainly supporting creatives everywhere is also very important to me.
Why is it important to have a diversity of arts at the festival?
I think that we as a culture underestimate other arts. Like a great example is that here we are in this venue (Company Brewing) where you can come and buy a beer and watch music almost any night of the week, which is a beautiful thing. But there isn’t really that culture around 2D art, there isn’t exactly that culture around the Milwaukee Art Museum and other performance arts. They’re not quite as celebrated as musical art. We have a culture with bar venues and theater venues that make it easier to celebrate musical art, but we’re really excited to have a variety night with comedians and other performance art. There was a burlesque performance, we have an art gallery and we have a Maker’s Fair upstairs, so we’re trying to sort of spread out all the creativity.
Were you a part of the festival last year?
No, I just came to it. I came to it on Saturday, one year ago today, and I remember walking into this space and just being so impressed with all the performances and I guess just feeling like, “Duh. Of course we should celebrate this, these people are amazing!” And the fact that the ratio is still not even.
It’s a no-brainer that this festival needs to happen and people need to come and experience the talent that these female performers have. And then to be in a room with people that are genuinely interested in celebrating femme creativity and supporting Milwaukee organizations, because it’s all a fundraiser. Also actively working on not being sexist and being allies for that cause. It felt great, so as soon as it happened last year I was like, “Who do I talk to? How do I get involved in this?”
Britney Freeman-Farr, musician (B~Free, Foreign Goods)
I got involved with FemFest last year when I was a part of another show with one of FemFest’s organizers, Johanna Rose. We were in Prince Uncovered together and we just connected musically. She said, “You and Cree Myles have to be a part of FemFest!” So we called Jay Anderson, and I wasn’t even in Foreign Goods at the time, but we were all friends because my husband is in the band. They backed us and the experience was so incredibly invigorating. Not only performing, but also watching all of these women command the stage and the audiences.
There was one group in particular, Mary Allen and the Perculators, and I was just blown away. I couldn’t believe that we have this much power! And then when I saw that the festival was coming back around and I was more developed with my own solo stuff at this time, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity to recreate the same magic that I experienced. I’m very happy to have the opportunity.
What does it mean for you to be a part of female focused gatherings?
It makes me feel like what I’m doing is purposeful. As we mentioned in the show this evening, ‘It’s really hard out here for a pimp.’ (laughs) It’s hard being a woman in this industry, let alone in this world. And to be able to be a thriving example of someone who not only has a craft but also makes a livelihood with it, that sets the tone for all the generations to come. I feel really good about letting the young ones know that no matter your background, or gender or creed, you can do whatever makes you happy. Forget everybody else’s standards that they place on you. I really feel like that’s the spirit behind FemFest. Celebrating that we’re not going to let you think of us as the lesser gender or anything, we’re equally as talented and important.
Gabriella Kartz, music organizer and performer (Faux Fiction)
It’s about supporting each other and celebrating people who add a lot to the Milwaukee scene in general through their various art forms. I think we’re really trying to make sure that we’re inclusive of all groups. People who are women or identify as women, we’re really trying to embrace all of that diversity. It’s what makes the fest a wonderful thing.
For me, last year was just a really positive experience. We got great feedback about our music and it was a really comfortable space to be able to express yourself. I think that’s what I really liked about it and why I wanted to be more involved this year.
Kelsey Moses, comedian (Goodlanders)
This was the first time we’ve done anything outside of ComedySportz. , so it was a great opportunity to share what we do with people who might not come to ComedySportz. How could you not enjoy a giant collaboration of beautiful, strong, powerful women being funny, being creative, being artistic, being musical? Women coming together to celebrate women, I love it.
Ashley Altadonna, filmmaker and musician (The Glacial Speed)
One of the great things about FemFest is that it is so inclusive. I know that they’ve had other transgender performers besides me at the festival and I think that’s great. I also had two films in the film showcase, plus all the workshops and community organizing they’re doing is fantastic. There’s just so much to see and do.
Jessi Paetzke, photographer
I attended last year because a friend invited me and it was really inspiring for me, so I wanted to get involved and photography is what I do. It’s really encouraging to see a bunch of diverse and talented women doing what they’re supposed to be doing and living out their passions. And also hearing about other people’s struggles, those of us who aren’t white men, what we face in society, how people might try to make us feel small or not welcome, and knowing that we’re not the only ones who feel that way.
Mary Joy, organizer and musician (Fox Face)
I didn’t have a strong female role model growing up and I had a lot of self-esteem issues. For me, music became that outlet of expression and that confidence builder. I’ve been playing in bands since I was 16 and that’s really where my female role models emerged. Music has been such an essential part of my identity and I realize that my story, my feminism, can relate and intersect with other people’s feminism. Our stories can come together and change a community. Our stories can help us find that self-esteem and whatever is missing in our lives.
It’s been a very empowering experience for me to have my own journey, but also to bring together other people’s journeys, wherever they’re at. And I hope they find something at FemFest, find something that they’re looking for, find a new relationship, find meaning somewhere.
D Kirschling, volunteer (Ladies Rock)
This year the fest has really expanded and added all types of artists. I’ve known about women in the arts and music scenes for a long time and it’s great to see everybody getting together to spread the word and get to know each other and share. It’s a pretty awesome feeling. I’m hearing bands I’ve known and loved and I’m hearing new bands I haven’t been exposed to before.
Anskar Thorlac, performance artist (Maplewood Gardens – Chicago)
We’re really interested in intersectionality in our audiences. Our rituals are meant to be public and shared by large groups of people. It’s really exciting to find different communities and especially a femme identifying community, being femme identifying artists ourselves. It’s exciting to have an entry point into that community in a different city. It’s also sort of liberating doing a shared ritual for people you don’t know. Plus all of the femme organizers have been so generous and supportive and responsive.
Katie Lyne, musician (New Boyz Club, Ruth B8r Ginsburg, The Grasping at Straws)
It shows that if we have to put on a whole entire festival of female or female-fronted acts, there’s obviously something missing. We have to do this to put it at the forefront. It’s not a female-dominated scene, but it’s going to be one. The dynamic is changing. And it’s just such an awesome festival, having safe places for women like Company Brewing, places that include everyone and bring the power back to where it belongs.
I love hearing the poetry too. Hearing females tell their stories of sexual abuse or whatever it may be, especially friends of mine who I see everyday. Everyone has a struggle as a woman and to have that on stage alongside these awesome bands, it’s such a great place for women to collaborate and remember that we’re all in this together.
Rachel Clark, gallery team
FemFest is an opportunity to bring a lot of people together to talk about females and female-identifying folks. Like when we did the interviews for gallery artists, we had meetings at our houses just so people could meet and have conversations. So not only is the festival important to me because of what it stands for, but also it’s an opportunity for people to get to know each other and build community.
Alexandre Maxine Hill, musician (LUXI)
FemFest means a lot to me. In the past it was harder for me to book shows as a female artist. I’m not sure people really took me seriously. So I think it’s really important that we have a place where we can have a voice and express ourselves in whatever way we want and just be the awesome women that we are.
Gabriela Riveros, gallery and Maker’s Fair artist
I think these kinds of fests are needed, especially for all the creatives that exist in Milwaukee. We need a space for other women creatives to come out of their own neighborhoods and communities and be a part of a larger project. I love the fest. There’s so much going on.
Casey O’Brien, festival-goer
I feel that women tend to have a somewhat secretive supportive role that isn’t always publicized. It sort of feels like the foundation that supports something else. And this festival puts a spotlight on people who don’t normally get a spotlight.
I think it’s easier for a woman or femme-identifying person to get up on this stage versus being on an everyday Milwaukee lineup, when too often girls are judged based on how they look or people say stuff like, “Oh she’s good for a girl.” Here no one is looking at the stage and saying, “Look they have a girl in that band!” It feels more comfortable.
Katie Lafond, musician (Siren)
I want female-focused gatherings to be unnecessary. We shouldn’t need to have an all-girl thing for people to start putting more girls on shows. I think it’s more important for the guys because it gives them something to look at and be like, “Oh, this has been in our city this whole time and I just never knew it.”
But it’s also good for younger girls to see there are women out there who are doing what they might want to do. So I think it’s good to educate men and to show kids there are better opportunities and that we’re able to do these things on stage. It’s kind of like a teaching moment where we’re saying, “You can do this too, you’re not alone.”
See more of Jessi Paetzke’s photos from Riverwest FemFest 2017 by clicking the links below.
Day 1 (Wednesday @ Art Bar)
Day 2 (Thursday @ Groovy Dog Gallery & Riverwest Public House Cooperative)
Day 3 (Friday @ Jazz Gallery Center for the Arts and Company Brewing)
Day 4 & 5 (Saturday & Sunday @ Company Brewing)