Christa Donner was a huge fan of Sassy magazine when she was growing up in Fort Wayne, Indiana. “Through them I found out about zine culture, riot grrls, and bands like Sonic Youth,” says the 29-year-old visual artist, who now edits the zine Ladyfriend. In 1993, Donner sent in some head shots and illustrations in the hopes of being included in the magazine’s reader-produced issue. The guest staff passed on her drawings but picked her as a cover girl. “I was a teenager, and it seemed like a dream come true,” says Donner. “It seems kind of ironic now.”
By the time the issue actually hit the stands Donner was a freshman at the Memphis College of Art and hoped people she knew wouldn’t see it. “I was just starting to realize how the mass media was affecting me and my friends, and my role in that if I was going to be modeling,” she says. “I wanted to become well-known for something I accomplished rather than something that was due to luck or a coincidence.”
She started a short-lived zine called Sissy a couple years later, after Sassy was purchased and made over by the publisher of Teen. “It was horrifying,” she recalls. “One week I’m looking at great articles about body image and STDs and there’s a diverse group of models. The next week it’s blond girls in antifeminist slogan T-shirts and articles that were pure fluff. I was so frustrated that this one thing in the media I felt connected with had disintegrated that I had to make up for it in my own small way.”
After two thick issues Donner “got busy with other things” and transferred to the Cleveland Institute of Art, where she graduated in 1998. She started Ladyfriend two years later, when she was still living in Cleveland. “I had an amazing community of female friends living there who had gradually started to move to other cities,” she says. “I wanted to capture that time and their personalities and talents and skills and senses of humor in print.” The 44-page zine, intended as a one-off, got a positive review in Bust, and soon people from around the country were requesting copies and offering to contribute. “It took the project to another level,” Donner says. “I had to keep it going.”
Since then she’s published bian-nually, compiling theme issues around such topics as shoes, age, driving, and hair (first-person accounts included “Salon Receptionist Hell” and “Bald as a Baby,” the latter by a woman who’d gone through chemotherapy).
Last year she entered UIC’s MFA program in studio art and moved Ladyfriend’s headquarters to her Pilsen apartment. Earlier this year she started another zine, Free Advice, in which she asks people on the street, ages 6 to 96, for counsel on specific topics–for example, what to do if you’re afraid to fly or how to deal with a serious illness. “You can look it up and see 14 different answers from all kinds of people, from an engineer to a social worker to a high school student to a mother,” says Donner. She makes a practice of leaving copies on buses and in other public places. “I’m interested in reaching out to an audience that’s not necessarily looking for them.”
Donner, whose large-scale paintings use fashion photography as source material, is now represented by Kravets-Wehby Gallery in New York, but she says she considers her zines offshoots of her art. She’s currently finishing up a seven-city tour on which contributors (including her mother) and supporters are reading some of their favorite pieces from Ladyfriend. She’s also been interviewing people for the next issue of Free Advice, asking for tips on dealing with loss, singing and dancing in public, and what to do if you hate your job.
Donner will be joined by Misty Funk, Maria Gigante, Jennifer Justice, Steph Levi, and Lauren Portada at a free reading at 7 PM Saturday, August 21, at Quimby’s, 1854 W. North, 773-342-0910. For more on Ladyfriend see ladyfriend.homestead.com.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Yvette Marie Dostatni.