At 32, Molly Crabapple has lived an extraordinary life of travel, performance, art, journalism and activism, shared in her new illustrated memoir, “Drawing Blood” (Harper, $29.99), full of color in every way.
Crabapple launched her career as the Toulouse-Lautrec of the New York demimonde in the 2000s, as the house artist at the underground nightclub The Box. “The Box stayed open till five a.m. every night,” she writes, “Beyoncé, Lindsay, Scarlett Johansson slipped out. I-bankers blew 20 grand on bottles of champagne. Onstage, Russian acrobats did backflips over chainsaws.”
Then came 2008; the money disappeared. Crabapple turned her pen to the protest movements and hot spots around the world: Occupy Wall Street, London, Greece, Guantánamo Bay. Yet her story begins right here in Far Rockaway.
Tell us about your childhood on the Island.
I have to admit I didn’t like Long Island at all — the main benefit was that I lived near an LIRR stop, so I could cut school and sneak into the city. I grew up this frustrated, angry little person who felt suppressed by having to do the normal things of childhood. That constant chafing for freedom shaped how I lived my life later, in good ways I think, though I was probably quite obnoxious at the time.
For more than 10 years you’ve been in a relationship with another artist, whom you credit with helping you develop your style as an illustrator.
I had been drawing since I was four years old, but with the energy of being in love and the motivation of wanting to impress Fred, I did hundreds of drawings — and that’s how you find your style. Your style is already in you, you just have to keep working and your style is what will inevitably emerge.
And what about your style as a writer? Do you write longhand or on a computer?
I write on a computer, and I revise every sentence so much that if I worked longhand it would just be a butcher shop. I think my approach is rooted in having to craft taut, super-pithy, super-compressed observations for Twitter.
Like this: “When I traveled I became nothing but an eye, soaking up the world.” It was on your first trip abroad you got the name Molly Crabapple. You started out as a Jennifer, right?
Yes. There was a playwright who lived at Shakespeare and Company at the same time as I did. [The famous bookstore in Paris offers lodging to shoestring travelers.] He based a character in a play on me, a small, sour person named Molly Crabapple. Later, I chose it as my modeling name.
Not Misty Dawn?
The girls I was modeling with all had dark, gothy names, strange tattoos, unnaturally colored hair. Even the website we were on was called Suicide Girls.
And then you started Dr. Sketchy, a public life-drawing party that had costumes, music and drinks.
Life drawing is a standard part of art education, but there’s an odd discomfort with nudity in these classes, a sterile way of treating the body as an object. I wanted to celebrate the beauty of the women by making the class about their glamour and their coolness.
Society tries to confine women by saying you can only have one thing. You can be smart, but no one will love you. Or you can be sexy and desirable but no one will take you seriously. Or you can be virtuous, and then men will marry you. I like women who are too much, who express all sides of themselves, including the jagged edges.
To make money as an artist, you hung art shows in bars, sent out mailings, put up posters . . . and did a Kickstarter.
Yes, but the misconception is that you can be a nobody, put up a Kickstarter and national money pours in. It’s not like that, it’s more of a reward for years of effort getting your work out there.
A Kickstarter funded your trip to Greece with writer Laurie Penny, where you collaborated on the kind of witness journalism that’s your focus now.
The most horrible aspects of war are constantly photographed and videotaped. It’s important that these images are made as proof of war crimes, but looking at them can have a dehumanizing effect. I try in my work to preserve a sense of individuality and humanity, of the details of daily life. Because I spend so much time to create the image, perhaps the viewer will take longer with it, will see more of what’s there.