OnMilwaukee's The Future Is Female series is brought to you by Alverno College and features some of the most interesting, innovative and intelligent women in the city.
Alverno College, for over 135 years, has strived to educate and empower women to realize their leadership, strength of voice and potential to lead in the working world. Alverno’s support of “The Future is Female” continues to showcase and exemplify these efforts by supporting the stories of grit, resilience and strength of character of present, past and future leading women in the Milwaukee community! #AlvernoStrong
Lauryl Sulfate is a creator. She makes visual art, music and fashion; participates in myriad types of performance; writes honestly and creatively; and is the maven of engaging social media posts. And yet, the real magic conjures around and beyond her creative contributions: her ability and desire to unite her community and strengthen personal relationships.
OnMilwaukee recently had the chance to chat with Sulfate and ask her the eight questions that are routinely asked in the series.
1. What does active listening mean to you? Do you consider yourself a good listener, and if so, how has this helped you in your personal and professional relationships?
To me, active listening means hearing another person well enough to be able to act on what was shared. It’s going into any interaction with enough curiosity and humility to be able to pivot or incorporate what you learned from hearing others, staying flexible about how we perceive each other.
I’m always working on being a better listener, and sometimes I succeed better than others. I think that’s true of all people, though. Life is so full and complex and any one of us can be distracted or caught up in our feelings or we can sometimes be responding to things from some invisible place that others aren’t privy to. I think that in all skills, thinking “oh I’m really good at this” is a recipe for being bad at something and we do better when we think of ourselves as students of a thing instead of masters of it. So, I do not want to say that I’m a good listener. Instead, I will say that I’m a student of listening, and I am always working on it.
2. What was the last subject you were curious about and then pursued to learn more? How did you pursue it?
I’m an ADHD kid, and I currently have like 110 open tabs on my phone, so I don’t know if I can satisfactorily answer this question. I’m curious about too many things.
The last thing that I really went hard on was a project for my band. I had an idea for the cover of our new album, which is a photograph of a hand reaching up out of the ground in front of a tombstone. I suppose that I could have figured out a way to Photoshop it, but honestly, my Photoshop skills are mid. It somehow seemed easier to me to make a small film set, with a full-sized tombstone and a platform covered in sod with a hole cut into it so that I could sit under and reach up out of the earth. I realize that sounds daft to most people, but I'm a very hands-on thinker. I think and learn best by doing a project myself. This required a lot of internet searching and advice seeking by me because I had never done any of it.
I also went on a deep dive about graveyard symbolism – which is fascinating and very spooky cool – and ended up incorporating that into the final design of the tombstone itself. It was probably many more hours of labor than Photoshop would have been, but the results were great and I had way more fun doing it.
3. If you can’t figure something out yourself, what source or person do you turn to first? How long do you wait before you ask for help? As a woman, do you think you wait longer to reach out?
Well, there’s two things here, right? Like, first: Women are often conditioned to think that their asking for help is a burden, so we kind of just ignore it as an option until we forget it ever was one or until we are desperate, and then we feel terrible about having to ask.
And then, secondly, I think that many women are loath to ask people to help or to collaborate on a project because we’re held to a different and completely unrealistic standard of accomplishment than cis men are. You see this in the music industry a lot, and it’s one of my personal anger triggers. You see a woman artist who works collaboratively and every comment section you see is littered with men crying, “SHE DOESN’T WRITE HER OWN SONGSSSS!!" – even if she absolutely does. I’ve seen this comment made about artists from Taylor Swift to Lizzo to Billie Eilish to Beyonce to Courtney Love. I have never once seen this criticism launched at, say, Elton John, who very famously always collaborates, or Michael Jackson, who only wrote four out of the nine songs on his most famous album. Or you know, Frank Sinatra, who never wrote anything at all. It’s a sexist double standard that I think often causes women to feel like we CAN’T ask for help, or collaborate on projects, because we know that someone will use it to discredit our work. Which in music is particularly ridiculous because music is all ABOUT collaboration.
Personally, I like to reframe asking for help as utilizing my community, so I don’t think there’s just one person to ask. It’s more like, who is the right person to connect with who will help me get closer to what I need to get to? In the end, I care more about the project getting done the way it needs to be done than I do about credit. I love being asked for this kind of help, myself. I really love being a community connector and getting the right two people in touch to solve a problem or satisfy a need. So, when I do have to ask for help, I try to remind myself that asking gives someone else an opportunity to give assistance or share knowledge, and that that can be really satisfying.
4. What are your personal values? Who and/or what inspired them and how do these values affect your decision-making process?
Friendship is a very important value to me, maybe because I am a queer person and a bit of an odd duck. The people who have always truly been there for me, seen me and loved me the way I am, are my chosen family, my fellow queer art weirdies. I take my friendships as seriously as I take the relationships that society tells us are “more important." I tell my friends that I love them. I hug them. I help them. I want to see them shine. I have compassion for their successes and their joys and I hold space for them when they are suffering. I know that they do the same for me. I think that the way our society is currently organized really doesn’t give proper respect to friendship as the vital thing it is. Study after study shows that people who exist in community, who have true networks of close bonds with others, are healthier – both mentally and physically – and they live longer, better lives.
5. Technology and online communication/meetings/social has definitely changed over the years. Do these things help or hinder your growth – or both?
Oh, man. This is such a rabbit hole of a question. I really go back and forth on this one and it depends so much on my mood.
Obviously, having these new, powerful tools of direct communication has been vital to artists of all kinds. I’ve certainly been able to reach way more people with my work with new tech and social media than I would ever have without it! As a person in a band, I doubt anyone would even know who I am without them. Back in the Beforetimes, bands only got played anywhere based entirely on the graces of the record label system, which is famously corrupt.
These tools have helped me to gain new skills as an artist as well, like, when blogging was first a thing, man I loved it. I wrote so much. It was very exciting to be like “oh, I can write my thoughts and there’s just an AUDIENCE here for it!” Someone in Germany could be up at 1 a.m. reading my journal right now!” It felt almost like a whole new secret universe to explore. Undoubtedly, I am a better writer just because of all that extra writing practice. I have more skills as a photographer/graphic designer/videographer/editor, all that stuff, because I have a place to use them. And that’s really cool and fun. I love using new media and I love sharing my thoughts and my art with people, and experiencing what other people have to share.
On the other hand, because we all have so much access to all this communication technology, there’s just a glut of it, all the time. There’s an overwhelming amount of information whizzing into our brain spaces; more information than we can possibly process meaningfully. More and more of it, these days, comes in these tiny, bite-sized morsels that add up to quite a lot of our mental real estate. I don’t like how much of my attention is being siphoned off in tiny increments for things that I won't even remember in two days, and how much that affects my ability to create. And I can’t tell if people’s attention spans are really that much shorter or if our attention is just so in demand and saturated that we are all secretly exhausted.
6. Where is the farthest you’ve traveled and what is a thing or two you learned from the experience? And what surprised you?
Well, I have traveled a lot, but I’ve traveled the way I’ve made music: very punk and low budget and DIY. Lots of bouncing around to all these different towns across the U.S. So, I guess it depends on your definition of “far." Like, Washington DC isn’t that far, but it feels like a real big adventure when you get up at 4 a.m. and you’re driving for 15 hours straight to get there.
I absolutely LOVE going on tour, and I love road trips. I love traveling with friends and traveling alone. I love cobbling together a weird mishmosh of a little bit of car, a little bit of train, a little bit of bus, a little bit of staying with this person or that person, bouncing along town by town. All of it. I love how traveling in any form, but particularly traveling alone, puts me into a state of receptiveness and flow, and it also reminds me of my own capability, my own autonomy and my own boundaries.
7. What are your favorite art forms? How do you challenge yourself to actively engage in the arts?
Oh man, I love all art forms and I have worked in many of them. I have done theater, performance art, 2D visual art, sculpture, dance, video, music, writing, straight up crafts, fashion design. Honestly, I love everything. Making art is the thing in this world that animates me every day. Obviously music holds a special place in my creative life. I’m sure that's at least partly because it combines a lot of different skill sets for me but also because it's MUSIC. Like, what’s not to love?
I don’t know if I really have to challenge myself to engage in the arts, per se, mostly because I’m the type of artist who would have trouble not engaging. I’m always making something. And I share it because I gotta get it out, you know? Otherwise it will all just pile up in my house. I’m just a make-y person. I have a lot of ideas and it feels uncomfortable and crowded in my brain if I don’t get them out. As far as engaging in the arts as a consumer of them, that also feels like a natural thing for me. I just like experiencing new things and nothing seems boring to me, it all seems exciting and I want to know all of it. There’s not enough hours in the day.
8. How do you/your work move Milwaukee forward?
Well, any city needs artists to make it thrive. Just full stop. Artists’ basic function in a community is to provide the juice that makes any place worth living in. If you drive through an artless place, you can feel that in your soul. That's why nobody likes going to the DMV.
I think that just by staying here and investing in the cultural life of the city that we live in, artists are helping to move Milwaukee forward. There’s a little bit of a feedback loop that can happen, where the Milwaukee art scene is perceived as “too small” to sustain lifetime artists, so artists come of age and then they leave for bigger markets, which contributes to keeping the scene "too small." Staying in a city with a smaller scene, investing in making art for that community; that’s helping to grow that scene. Having said this … I also want to be careful not to discount the very real problems of lack of arts funding that makes artists feel a need to leave to survive! Send your artists more money, Milwaukee.
I moved to Milwaukee as an adult, so I think sometimes I have a perspective on it that people who grew here don’t have. Milwaukee, to me, is such a well-kept secret. I love when friends from other places come to visit, and maybe they have a set idea about this place. And then I get to peel back the surface and show them all these jewels, you know? Like a pomegranate. It’s a little bit of a frumpy looking fruit from the outside! You have to crack it open to see all the beauty inside of it.
Along those same lines of appreciation, I feel that Milwaukee has a beautifully diverse arts scene and that is something that is important to me, as an artist, to actively support. If I have a show or an opportunity that I can share with another artist, especially women artists, BIPOC artists, queer artists, trans and nonbinary artists, then I am going to use that opportunity to bring folks along with me if I can. I don’t want to see just the same five bands play every show. And one of the really cool things about Milwaukee is that we don’t have to do that. We have so many different folks with unique perspectives, all doing amazing work. I really want to see all those people getting together.
Molly Snyder started writing and publishing her work at the age 10, when her community newspaper printed her poem, "The Unicorn.” Since then, she's expanded beyond the subject of mythical creatures and written in many different mediums but, nearest and dearest to her heart, thousands of articles for OnMilwaukee.
Molly is a regular contributor to FOX6 News and numerous radio stations as well as the co-host of "Dandelions: A Podcast For Women.” She's received five Milwaukee Press Club Awards, served as the Pfister Narrator and is the Wisconsin State Fair’s Celebrity Cream Puff Eating Champion of 2019.