Morgan Dixon on the set of Claws.
Photo: TNT

Morgan Dixon never imagined she’d oversee nail art on a hit TV show. In fact, she says she’s not completely sure how Claws even found her.

“I wasn’t a part of the pilot and last season I was actually just an additional nail tech ... somehow I just worked and became the key [nail artist] running the department,” she shares during a set visit to New Orleans, where the Florida-set show is filmed.

TNT

[Full disclosure: The Root was part of a press junket in New Orleans for Claws, in which travel was paid for by TNT.

A quick google search of M.A.D. Nails (named for Dixon’s initials) exposes her modesty. In New Orleans she was already a nail star before Claws came calling. “Morgan is, hands down, the best nail ARTIST there is in NOLA. Maybe even the South,” one client raved on the salon-booking platform StyleSeat in 2016. “[W]atching her craft was like watching performance art,” shared another. In recent years, Solange, Issa Rae, Teyana Taylor and Rutina Wesley are among the more well-known women whose tips Dixon has “nailed.”

Dixon’s Instagram page is filled with pop art whimsy and great nail fun, in general. There are images of nails with happy faces, 8 balls, eyes, geometric shapes—even little faces of black girls, creepy aliens and more. And there’s lots of color: the pastels are ethereal, especially the cloud-like blues. There are also bold yellows, scandalous reds, money greens and flashes of gold; and then, of course, the animal prints and camouflage in various colors.

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As a nail artist, the twenty-something Dixon has a bit more art training than most in her field. Back at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville, Florida, where she lived before relocating to the Big Easy, she studied art history along with international relations. Dixon’s love of art was also nurtured during her nomadic childhood; when the Navy stationed her dad in Italy, her mother and she visited museums throughout Europe whenever he was at sea, and those influences remain with her to this day.

In college, the desire for work flexibility and cash, along with the need to express herself creatively, led Dixon to doing nails. Running across independent curator Rita de Alencar Pinto’s innovative nail art pop-ups in respected fine art venues like MoMA PS1 and the Brooklyn Museum inspired Dixon to try to replicate in in Jacksonville. When she copied Pinto on the inquiry, Pinto reached out to invite Dixon to participate as a nail artist-in-residence just as her trailblazing nail salon-meets-gallery space Vanity Projects was getting off the ground.

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Dixon’s time in New York City, from which both her parents hail, was short but impactful. There, Dixon realized how important it was for her to brand herself and her talents. Back in Jacksonville, she decided to venture to New Orleans to do nails for Mardi Gras and, to her surprise, found a new place to call home. The friendly, small-town vibe and constant rotation of big-time fun was just the combination of elements she needed.

“There’s always a party going on here,” Dixon explains. “There’s always a reason for people to want to get their nails done, so it was just kind of a win-win situation too. It just seemed great business-wise and also personally.”

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Claws has also been good to Dixon. Since nails are a centerpiece of the wacky TNT hit dramedy starring Niecy Nash as sassy nail salon owner/mama bear/loyal friend Desna Simms and four vastly different women as supporting characters, Dixon can go all out.

“All the nails that she makes for us tell a story, so they follow the character’s journey or whatever they’re going through at the time,” Nash recently told journalist Lola Ogunnaike.

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Dixon explains that that process starts on the page: “You read the scripts and, as the artist, you take notes on what you think the nails should look like and then you go to these concept meetings with the director and the writer and they give their ideas.” After that, it’s up to Dixon to bring those nails to life.

Because it is impossible to do the cast’s actual nails and stay on schedule, the designs are created on press-on nails that are later applied for shooting. Dixon doesn’t do it alone, either, employing other artists so that audiences can see a variety of styles.

“We do have nail artists that we reach out to because the workload is a really big workload for any one person to do, especially being on set and making sure all the women are getting the manicures that they need and making sure nails aren’t falling off and getting lost,” Dixon explains.

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But so far this season, Dixon herself has handled a number of standout looks. For instance (spoiler alert), she created the tribute nails Uncle Daddy—head of the Dixie Mafia that trapped Desna and her crew in an elaborate illegal prescription drug and money-laundering scheme—wears for dead wife Juanda in the first episode of the second season. Another is the elaborate blue Fabergé egg design worn by newer character Zlata, in Episode Six, to mark the Russian mafia takeover, which Dixon created with nail artist Maria C. Sanchez (Nailed by Cristy)

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Ironically, Dixon—who has long viewed manicures as “an exhibit on your nails that you get change out every two weeks,” has had a more prolific artistic run doing nails than she could imagine as a woman of color in the art world, which still struggles with effectively and respectfully integrating its spaces (as evidenced by the Brooklyn Museum’s selection of the very white Dr. Kristen Windmuller-Luna as its African Arts curator). It’s a reality that has propelled a large part of Dixon’s career.

“I realized [that by] doing nails I had a lot more opportunities in the art world than I would have trying to stick with the goal of being a curator,” Dixon admits. “I just knew that I would be doing a lot more in the industry as a nail artist.”

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That says a lot, considering that nail art, according to Dixon, had long “been seen as gaudy and ghetto.” But clearly that has changed.

“Nail art has always been out there but it just hasn’t been appreciated until recently,” Dixon observes. Regular features in mainstream fashion magazines and websites as well as its celebration on shows like Claws prove her right—and there’s no denying that the craft has been good to Dixon.

“I am not in a rush to stop doing nails,” confesses Dixon, who still does nails off-set by appointment only, and sells custom-designed sets via her website. “I don’t know if I’ll be doing them my whole life, because I feel like I’m a Renaissance woman, and there’s a lot I want to do.”

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What she does know is that “it’s just been a really great journey.”

The Glow Up tip: The season finale of Claws airs Sunday, August 12 at 9 pm ET on TNT.