Anya Weitzman

Anya Weitzman and I met up over coffee and donuts in Pittsburgh, during her moving week this past April.  Anya is a sculptor, jewelry designer, metalsmith, and founder of Mod Evil Studio.  Influenced by anthropology and gender studies, Anya creates pieces that give the wearer a deep sense of their own power, following her interest in “how different types of clothing allow for different states of empowerment.”  This interview focuses on her 2013 piece, “Milk Dudes,” a men’s brooch set of two porcelain life cast male nipples.  We at Venison are smitten.

Anya’s willingness to share her own experiences—including that which otherwise could be labeled private—stood out as a rare kind of honesty, a rootedness and trustworthiness that enable her pieces to speak universally and personally, while also being transgressive and empowering to viewers and wearers alike.

So tell me, how did Milk Dudes come to be?
So a friend of mine, Sharon Massey, who weirdly is right here on this pamphlet [on the shelf next to our cafe table], she helped me set my studio when I was just getting started, and she’s an incredibly talented metalsmith, she’s really far along in her career, she’s fancy.  Before she went to teach at Indiana University of Pennsylvania full time, she was here and making art and doing lots of stuff and she was putting together this show called, Sup Brooch.  It was an exhibition and she had people submit brooches specifically for men.  Trying to take a form of jewelry that’s traditionally seen as feminine and playing with that, and it could either be really literally, like designed for men, or it could be playing with that gender boundary.  Because a lot of jewelry is like, you have necklaces for men and you have rings for men, but you don’t see a lot of brooches for men, except if you’re looking at historical jewelry.

So I was thinking about that, and immediately I was like, oh, porcelain male nipples, got to do this for Sup Brooch.  I had made WE CHESS, the erogenous gendered porcelain chess set, where all the pieces are wearable, a year or two before that, so I had life casts of a bunch of different erogenous zones in porcelain so I still had some male nipples, which was great.  And then I fabricated them.
I was watching the old eighties Batman, and the nipples on the costume, and just how great is that?  And I love how costume design and superheroes and masculinity and strength and power they all change over time, and suddenly these things that were really masculine and cool are really lame.  If you look at athletic gear from the 70’s, men were wearing itty-bitty little shorts and high white socks, and that was what athletes wore.  They didn’t wear giant baggy basketball shorts, they wore itty bitty little booty shorts.  I love when shit like that happens, that illustrates for us just how foolish we are to try to put gender in a box of fashion. I wanted to get a good burly manly man to model my nipples.  So it was also important to have my friend Ben Filio wearing his leather jacket, riding his motorcycle wearing these porcelain nipples.  I think it all came together really nicely.Is Ben the kind of man you picture being the wearer of the piece?
If we’re being super honest, no, not necessarily.  I would see maybe someone who is a little more out there with their fashion choices, flamboyant and metrosexual and is ready to push the envelope a little bit.  Or maybe an older man who is going to wear the nipple brooches over his really nice blazer, to play with that.  But someone young, like Ben, who is doing his own thing.  He in particular, since he’s my friend and I know him, I know that he’s making fashion statements in a different way, just going in a different direction, so I don’t think he would be the wearer of the piece.  But from a purely visual standpoint, he was the perfect wearer of the piece.Did he talk to you at all about what it was like for him to wear it?
I think he enjoyed it, he seemed a little bit more playful and a little bit more sassy.  And he was definitely into posing, he was riding his motorcycle back and forth and wearing the nipple brooches.  It was funny.  I think he was getting into it, getting into the spirit of it.  And like, make sure my pants are on right and make sure the rest of my outfit is on right.So when I was looking at those photos I was thinking about how it seemed like a powerful thing to do, like a piece that you’d put on to turn up the volume of your power.  Are there any other categories of empowering wearable items that you’d see this piece as falling under?
Oh yeah, well that’s something that I’m always working towards.  I always want the pieces I make to be turning up the volume of your power.  Because I made these one-finger brass knuckles that have words on them, and people will be like, oh, you’re going to punch me in the face, and I’m like, eh, if you keep hitting on me in this bar, I totally am.  I want to make brass knuckles that say “fuck you” but backwards.  I like taking masculine aggression and putting it into the hands of feminine power.  I don’t support violence, it’s all about being playful and expressive.  And I think if we express ourselves then we maybe don’t have to act out in violent ways.I think it’s totally different for every person.  Like with my research and interviewing all these different women on what fashion elements empower them, it was different for every woman.  So I think it’s really hard to pin down for other people what the objects might be that would turn up their power.  But I like to think there are some things that are classics for everyone.  Like I think a really nice leather jacket makes a person feel excellent, whether it’s a vegan leather jacket or otherwise.  That’s a good piece.  I feel like Doc Martens, I love my combat boots so much.  I love big boots, these make me feel powerful and great.  And like if I’m trying to leave the house and I’m wearing heals and I’m going to a place where I need to be on, where I need to be representing my self, my art and representing my business, I’m like, I can’t wear these shoes, I have to wear my docs, I have to wear these big boots because that’s what makes me feel good.But then I talk to my housemate, I live with one other woman, and she was saying she can’t even understand how I wear these boots and she thinks that they would really slow her down, and she feels fantastic when she’s wearing those weird little five-finger toe shoes.  She likes to feel like she’s barefoot and that she can climb up trees.  And I think those shoes are ridiculous and unattractive, but we have agreed to literally walk a mile in each other’s shoes.  We have the same shoe size, so we’re going to try it out.  So yeah, I think it’s totally different for different people.Will you tell me a little bit more about how you made the Milk Dudes?
Sure, the process started with the life casting, which was awesome.  I’m really thankful to my partner, Michael, for bearing with me because he had to really expose himself to do this project with me.  So I used dental grade alginate, which is totally body-safe and nontoxic–it’s what dentists use to take casts of your teeth.  It’s a product derived from seaweed and it solidifies in ten minutes.  But we did casts of our tongues, we did casts of our buttholes, and you had to sit there for ten minutes and be like, okay, here we go!

So to get the nipples, yeah, I just had to construct a cylinder to come away from the body and lay down and fill it with alginate.  I would make a positive in wax from the alginate negative, and then I would make a plaster mold negative from the wax positive, and then I would cast porcelain slip into the plaster and then fire the porcelain.  And that’s how I got the object and all the different parts.  It’s a great process.  It’s long, but a lot of zen, and just embrace the process because there’s nothing you can do about it.
Have you noticed that Instagram doesn’t allow women nipples*?
Yes.Do you think women would be flagged on Instagram if they were wearing nipple brooches?
That’s so interesting because I also did a series called LADY BITS, before Milk Dudes, so Milk Dudes definitely came out of that as well, and those were pieces cast in bronze and I did a cast of my nipple, my eye and the outside of my vagina, my vulva.  And I posted me wearing the bronze nipple, it clearly was a lady nipple and it hangs right in between your boobs, so you have this great third eye thing happening, third nipple, your nipple chakra, your psychic nipple.  It didn’t get flagged or anything, so they didn’t notice.So yeah, I do think that’s interesting, and I like the way that people are combating that.  I do like Instagram a lot, but I’ve seen there’s this, I think it’s called the “TaTa Top,” there’s a nude bikini top you can wear.  And it was really interesting to see them go through that process.  It was just a bikini top with nipples and skin printed on it, so you can wear it and you totally look like you’re topless.  And then it was great to see people criticize them and say, you only have one top and it’s for white women, where are the women of color, and then watch the designers interact with their audience: how can we design this TaTa Top better?  What skin tones do you guys want?  And then come out with those.And then also I’ve seen people posting random nude selfies and saying, go for it, take this down, but don’t take down someone’s art, if you need to take something down, take down this random selfie.  I like that aggressive sassy-ness.  So it’s been interesting to see people dealing with that in their separate ways.  But nobody took down my nipple, I think.  I assume that they would send you a notification, like, your picture has been flagged.  I feel like I should check.  It would be really funny if we were talking and it was just gone.  [She checks.  It’s still up on Instagram.]What do you think the difference would be for someone to wear the Milk Dudes versus cutting out holes in their shirts so that their nipples could stick through?
That’s a great question.  I think there’s a nice middle ground between exposure and exhibitionism without the vulnerability of displaying your own naked body.  I think there’s also another element with the semi-preciousness of the materials.  I liked using porcelain for the project because of the creamy, milky-white delicate qualities of it.  I think it comes back to my belief that fashion can be used as armor and weaponry, empowering you and guarding you.  I guess that would be the difference.  What were you thinking?I was thinking something along the lines of vulnerability also.  But it made me think too about how since it’s not super trendy for men to wear super tight pants to see the outlines of their junk, in the same way that women’s breasts folks can generally see the outline, that it could be cool to be expressive in a way to have the nipples available to be seen.  But still have it not be the actual thing.  So that was one of the parallels that I was drawing too, the pro’s and con’s that folks with breasts get to experience wearing tighter shirts and having somewhat sexual body parts be somewhat visible, this could be a similar equivalent: choosing to accentuate something that could be sexual.
Yeah, right, choosing to have a low-cut top.  Did you see what Rick Owens did? His spring line that he just released had dicks just hanging out?No, really?
It was really great.  People on the internet were like, maih!  And I was just like, yes, I am so down for dicks hanging out, like why not?  Perfect.  You see all these other women, and like, spring runway, I’m just wearing a piece of chiffon, hahahaha, you can see all my private parts.  But yeah, they were all these drapey pieces and it would just like, drape drape all the way, and then there was just a dick.  It was so funny.  It wasn’t super attractive, but I love that he went there.  I’ve heard mixed things about him as a person, but just looking at the fashion, I love that idea, I’m glad he went there.  And I want him to go there.

Today I just heard that they’re doing a version of Hooters called, Tallywackers, and it’s like dudes jumping around.  And I just think, that’s great, you don’t need to cover up all the Hooters girls, just give us some Hooters guys.  I like that.  Let’s go in that direction together, let’s all just be more out there, together.  Let’s all look like Blade Runner characters and just be half-naked in the street.  That’s what I want to see when I’m an old lady and I’m on the park bench.  I want to see men walking down the street with just dick hanging out.  We can only hope.

Well if we start imagining it now, maybe by the time we’re eighty it will be here.
Yes, we can bring it, with our visions.

I also wanted to ask, what was your experience like working with porcelain versus bronze for the nipples?
Oh, I don’t know, it was not that different.

Okay, how do you think it would be different if your female nipple pendant was made out of porcelain or if the Milk Dudes were made out of bronze?
Right, with the process they were really similar to work with, but conceptually they become totally different.  Bronze, being again evocative of armor and I’m immediately thinking, Bronze Age, everyone get spears!  And porcelain is more delicate, and if you drop it, it’s going to break.  So there is something cool in the play of objects together, I think it’s way more interesting to have the female nipple pendant in bronze and the male in porcelain.

And I’ve been thinking nipples for a while.  When I was doing my apprenticeship in Florence, one of my final things I made as a gift to my female teacher, who was the professor of anthropology and fashion, was a sterling silver nipple with a single mother of pearl tear hanging from the very tip of it.  It was much more about the–I don’t want to say maternal, but she was very nurturing to me and really helped me grow, and fed me and nourished me.  So I wanted it to have a very mother, maternal, mentor feeling, so I did sterling silver and mother of pearl.  All the different materials can bring different things to the pieces.

Did she love it?
Yeah, she liked it.

I hope she wears it all the time.
I think she does.  She’s the kind of person who likes to turn it up a notch.

Are you continuing to do works of nipples?
I want to bring back the nipple pendant, at least the female nipple pendant.  It’s funny because I put them both up and people have generally shown more interest in the female nipple.  I don’t know if it’s just because it’s bigger, I don’t know.  It’s so funny.

Has anyone asked for you to do one of their nipple or of a specific person’s nipple?
No, actually.

That would be interesting.
That would be cool, that would be really funny because a lot of the body casting started with what I saw in a lot of sex toy stores you can buy a kit that comes in the mail, and you can make a cast of your partner’s penis and turn it into a dildo.  And of course, I was like, I will make a chess set, but it would be really funny to have a kit and you could send it to people and they would cast their own nipple.  I was also inspired by the women’s health movement and the DIY approach of the 1970’s of get your own speculum, check out your own cervix, check out your own fluids, are you healthy, learn about your body.  And so I realized I’ve never seen my own cervix and that all came about with the casting as well, like I actually took a cast of the inside of my vagina, which was crazy.  I got to see the whole interior architecture of my own vagina.  It was awesome.

So there was a little bit of an educational aspect to it, where you could look at this object.  My dad was a great resource because he’s a gynecologist and I made him a paperweight.  It all came together.  But I definitely ran it by him, is this safe?  And he was like, go for it.

It also makes me think, I don’t know if this is true, but there’s a myth from my childhood that some people get vials of their partner’s blood and wear it as a love charm necklace.  Is that a thing you’ve heard of?
Yeah, I’ve seen that.  Actually for a while, I was doing a piece where you could send me a lock of hair and I would insert it into a piece for you.  But then I had a little bit of a scare, I had a client who just wouldn’t tell me where the hair had come from.  And it started off as me saying, I’m just curious is this your hair, and I had other people, everyone would tell me, oh, my mother just passed away and I would love to have her hair in a piece.  Awesome.  But this guy just wouldn’t tell me where the hair came from, and I got really uncomfortable and so I took that piece offline.  I was just like, no judgment, I just need to know for safety reasons.  I had these weird dark fantasies of: the police will come to my door, do you know anything about this hair?

*In April, Instagram changed its policy to allow women nipples in photographs of “post-mastectomy scarring and women actively breastfeeding” and women nipples in photos of paintings and sculptures.  Otherwise, women nipples are considered “nudity,” which is not allowed Instagram.  Instagram allows all men nipples in photographs.

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