Creative force

From burlesque to the front lines, artist Molly Crabapple is “Drawing Blood”

After years training her razor-sharp eye on the big issues, from incarceration to war, the artist and writer has produced a refreshingly honest memoir

Artist and writer Molly Crabapple is an unstoppable creative force these days.

Over the past several years, her combination of distinctive, edgy drawings and pointed writing style have popped up in publications ranging from Vice to Vanity Fair, covering global issues including Guantanamo Bay, the war in Syria, and mass incarceration in the U.S. She has mounted a gallery show of large-scale works, staged performance art experiments, and has even had work accepted into the permanent collection at the Museum of Modern Art.

But her latest work, the memoir Drawing Blood, was a wholly new challenge. After years spent training her razor-sharp eye on the outside world, she turned her focus inward, investigating and eviscerating her own memories to produce a refreshingly honest, wholly entertaining account of her life so far. “Nothing I’ve ever done has been one iota as hard as trying to take my life and take all of these things that possibly were extremely painful or things I’ve long forgotten about and reconstruct them into something that other people may want to read. It was brutal,” Crabapple, 32, tells Women in the World the day after a successful book event at The Last Bookstore in L.A.

Crabapple’s penetrating insight into the process of creating art and her own motivations is one of the true pleasures of Drawing Blood. Like all great artists, her work is fresh, evocative, and seemingly effortless. But she doesn’t gloss over the endless hours of hard work, self doubt, and challenges that went into getting here. She wasn’t born Molly Crabapple … quite literally.

Crabapple was never a huge fan of her birth name (Jennifer), or of childhood, period (she says she had a case of “age dysmorphia”). So, she graduated a semester early from high school on Long Island, burned all of the childhood photos she could get her hands on, and set out to see the world and embrace adulthood before she was due to start studying art at the Fashion Institute of Technology in the fall.

Crabapple may have been a bit of a rebellious kid, but making art wasn’t a defiant act. With a long line of artists on her maternal side, it was considered an acceptable career path. But that’s about where Crabapple’s conformity ended.

In Europe, Crabapple lived for a time at the legendary bookstore Shakespeare & Company in Paris, where she joined a community of creative, itinerant souls (one of whom bestowed on her the name “Molly Crabapple,” which she would eventually adopt as her own), before traveling throughout the continent and landing, for a time, in Morocco. She saw the world through the sketchbook she kept with her at all times. “When I traveled I became nothing but an eye, soaking up the world,” Crabapple writes.

When she returned to New York for college, it was the fall of 2001, and the world was about to change.

Crabapple came of age through the upheavals and devastations, excesses and joie de vivre of 21st century New York. Her memoir acts as a micro-history of the city during that time — the devastating aftermath of 9/11, the vibrant nightlife (and growing class divide) of the financial boom years, and the political and social movements that came after the crash. Crabapple was there for it all, and her life has been just as colorful as that of her native city.

In order to fund her artistic ambitions, Crabapple decided to become a nude model, at first for GWC’s (“guys with cameras”), amateurs who used the veneer of artistic respectability for the thrill of having a naked girl in their hotel rooms. She also modeled for art classes, joined the Suicide Girls community, and developed an interest in burlesque. “It was money that drove me to the naked girl business,” Crabapple writes. “But I also wanted to test myself. I wanted to see if I could work in a field as fraught and stigmatized as sex work, and emerge unscathed. I wanted to burn off childhood.”

Crabapple doesn’t shy away from the complexities of this time. She writes openly and honestly about the victimization of women’s bodies and what it was like to turn that on its head and use her own body to make money. She tells stories of the sexism and misogyny that young women face in the art world, especially those who have been “tarnished” with the sex worker label. And she openly shares her difficult experience getting an abortion.

How did the “test” work out for her? “I don’t think anyone emerges unscathed from life unless you’re living in a really uninteresting way,” she says.

Crabapple’s early work is populated with the characters she met during this time. But it was at Manhattan’s outrageous and infamous nightclub-cum-cabaret, The Box, where she found her muse and come into her own as an artist, cementing the lively, frenetic drawing style that would come to characterize her work.

One of Crabapple’s favorite artists growing up was Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, who painted the 18th-century happenings at Parisian hotspot the Moulin Rouge. A chance invitation from one of The Box’s performers gained Crabapple access to the extremely exclusive club one night, and she was hooked. She got her drawings into the hands of the co-founders, who quickly anointed her their very own Toulouse-Latrec. Night after night, she perched in darkened corners and the wings of the stage, sketching the performers as they entertained with their wild acts and the debauchery and excesses of the gilded clientele.

Crabapple describes herself at this time as “one who recognized the Box not just as a louche fantasyland, but as a kind of Roman colosseum of the downtown culture war.” She started gaining notice as a fixture at the fashionable nightclub, and recognition and party invitations soon followed.

She says “of course” it’s complicated to go from being an underdog crusading for rights and recognition to achieving a bit of success. “And anyone you tells you that it’s not is a big, old liar.”

But at the same time, “anyone who pretends that they’re still an underdog when they’re making six figures or they have a bestselling book or a big bestselling album or whatever, I find that insipid,” she says, noting that “there’s nothing good about being an underdog.”

The shine of spending nights in the heart of New York’s nightlife scene began to wear off as the world began to change, both with the financial collapse and the protests of the new decade. “In the winter of 2010, the world started to burn. I was painting pigs in Nero’s nightclub,” Crabapple writes, later adding, “I loved my artist friends, but the life we led no longer seemed relevant.”

She took the artistic style she had honed during late nights at The Box and started using it in a new way. When the Occupy Wall Street Movement began just blocks from her apartment, she would wander through the protests, documenting the scenes in her sketchbook. She quickly became involved, creating works that were turned into posters and other materials for the movement. She gained further fame when she live tweeted her arrest at one of the later protests.

As Occupy died down, Crabapple found new subjects in need of her deft brush. She says she does not consider herself an activist. Rather, she “identif[ies] as political in the same way that most people should be political.”

With raw emotion and penetrating insight, she has tackled the issues that are currently plaguing our world — wars, migration, incarceration, human rights. She began writing in 2012 (a jealousy-inducing fact given the pure delight of her prose), producing personal essays and reported pieces to accompany her drawings. “These prisoners’ absence hung heavier than any presence could,” she writes of visiting Guantanamo Bay during the Khalid Sheik Mohammed trial and being barred from seeing any other inmates. “I drew compulsively, hoping that sketches of Gitmo’s facilities could serve a purpose something like the chalk outlines of bodies at a crime scene, delineating space around the lost … With each brushstroke, I thought about drawing the men back into existence.”

Today, Crabapple is using her piercing brush and pen to produce hard-hitting reports on issues like the “Dallas Six” prison abuse case (one of the stories she’s proudest of in the past year), traveling to Iraqi Kurdistan to document the work of Doctors Without Borders, and being nominated for countless awards. (She also hasn’t lost sight of her lively past; she recently completing a set of murals for a new club being opened by one of the co-founders of The Box.) “I feel so privileged to get to see geopolitics up close and to document the places where history is happening right now. And I just hope to do more of that, I feel very, very lucky,” she says.

“Art alone cannot change the world,” Crabapple writes. “Pens can’t take on swords, let alone Predator drones. But as disappointment and violence spread, the antidote is a generosity that the best art can still inspire.”

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