Molly Crabapple has been a staple on the New York art scene for a while. Known for her colorful blend of surrealist political artwork and her provocative journalism, she has now added “author” to her credentials with the release of her boldly illustrated memoir Drawing Blood.
Born Jennifer Caban in Queens and raised in Cedarhurst, Long Island, Crabapple uses Drawing Blood primarily to tell the story of her reinvention from a self-described “moppet” to a downtown force with a trademark style that calls to mind the allure of Morticia Addams mixed with Betty Page’s wild pin-up grace. An award-winning artist, Crabapple is probably known best for her series of large-scale paintings; she also writes a regular column at VICE with headlines like “The Surveillance State and You” and “It Don’t Gitmo Better Than This.”
Here, we speak with Crabapple about growing up in Long Island, visiting places like Paris and Guantanamo Bay, and why having a piece in the Museum of Modern Art is no big thing.
What were the neighborhoods like where you grew up?
I lived in Far Rockaway till I was eight, and then Cedarhurst, in Long Island, until I was 17. When I was living in Far Rockaway, it was so neglected by city services that there were packs of wild dogs that ate one of my mom’s cats. My neighbors had an illegal chop shop in our communal, ivy-covered backyard, and me and their daughters would play in the gutted cars. Proper castles, when you’re a kid. Cedarhurst was a typical grim suburb, but I lived walking distance from the train station so I could sneak into the city.
In your memoir you said you were stuck with in-school suspension a lot for drawing in class, and you wrote “drawing is always a disruptive act. You produce when you’re expected to consume.”
Drawing is a quiet, but noticeable display of skill and commentary. You draw caricatures of a teacher to make fun of their big nose or portraits of a beautiful girl on a subway. It’s an excuse to look that immediately changes the dynamic of something.
You flew to Paris following high school, and once there, George Whitman, the owner of Shakespeare and Company, took you in when you needed a place to stay. This was the first of many major game-changers, right?
It absolutely was. Shakespeare and Co. was the sort of place that ought to exist only in my mind—this utopia built out of books and generosity. It taught me that life could be art, and still be made to work. It taught me to say “fuck realism” when it came to my dreams, and then be intensely practical about how to bring them into the world. In the acknowledgements of this book, I thank George. I never got to thank him in life… not properly, not like he deserved. But he was one of those people who, with a kind but casual gesture, helped teach me how to live.
There were times when you traveled solo when a situation seemed doomed and yet you managed to pull through. Do you feel that timing or luck had anything to do with any of that?
The world is incredibly dangerous because we are fragile meat sacks, and there are cars and germs everywhere, but it’s also safer than one wants to believe. Who knows, really?
You clearly have a strong sense of justice, one which landed you in jail during Occupy and eventually took you to the prison in Guantanamo where your memoir opens and ends. Did this come from being raised in a political household?
My parents both influenced me so much. My father is a Latino studies professor and a Marxist who spent a considerable amount of time in Cuba when I was growing up, and who bought me Emma Goldman books and Huey Newton’s Revolutionary Suicide. My mother is an illustrator from a working class, impractical, and highly unconventional family of artists. I think, though, that perhaps indignation and anti-authoritarianism are baked into my brain on a more formative level. A school psychiatrist once diagnosed me with “oppositional defiant disorder.”
Would you say you’re drawn to chaos, or even thrive on it? Have you ever wondered what your mind would be like if you couldn’t channel these experiences and make them useful?
My actual life is rigidly ordered: I wake up, translate, draw, read, write, meet people, in an order dictated by to-do lists I’ve kept since I was 10. No one can produce this much work without being organized. But then, when I’m doing journalism, this intense instinct for research and order combines with serendipity, chance and yes, often chaos.
Maybe these things go hand in hand…
The extremes work together. I mean, sometimes the muse shows up at your door in black silk stockings but you have to be ready for her.
When you were drawing Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in Guantanamo, you wrote “It’s a strange kind of disassociation, to stare into another’s eyes only to make those eyes into shapes on paper. To draw is to objectify, to go momentarily to a place where aesthetics mean more than morality.” Have you ever had an encounter with someone who reacted violently to you drawing them?
Once when I was sketching in misdemeanor court in New York (i.e., the ground-level enforcement room for institutional racism), I was drawing a mean-spirited caricature of the court officer. He started puffing up, saying I couldn’t draw, all sorts of things that were legally untrue, until I refused to back down and he walked away. I passed the caricature around the courtroom and all the guys waiting for their bullshit tickets had a proper laugh at his expense.
You modeled nude for amateur photographers, studio artists, as a former Suicide Girl; plus for many years you graced various stages as a burlesque dancer. Were you always comfortable with nudity?
Being naked is nothing. What’s always made me nervous is having to make small talk. The best thing about being moderately well-known is that your social failure is reinterpreted as eccentricity or reserve.
What drew you to the world of burlesque in the first place?
I just fell in love with these diamond-hard men and women. They fascinated me, inspired me, filled me with admiration.
Why did you stop?
I was never a talented dancer or even really a decent one, but I did it mostly to be around them. I stopped because I was never good, and I wanted to spend that time on art.
A few years ago you produced “Shell Game”–a series of ten large scale paintings about the revolutions and crisis of 2011. Were those paintings hard to let go? It seemed you put so much into that project.
I wouldn’t say the pieces were like children, but they were almost more like religious talismans, so freighted with blood and meaning that when I put the things in crates and sent them off it felt like losing something close.
How was the experience of writing your memoir similar or different to that of constructing a large visual art project?
While there’s a conceptual element to art, so much of it is sheer skilled physical labor, making it perhaps more similar to dancing than writing. I can talk on the phone or play music or distract myself in any other way while doing the donkey-work of a big painting. A book is concentration. Something lonely and miserable, a thousand times more demanding than the largest painting.
Did you find any crossovers in technique?
The only crossover I found was something Chelsea Summers, the brilliant writer who edited my book, told me. She said that most writers she had taught were quite precious with their words, but I had this willingness to write and rewrite them as long as it took. I think it comes from the mute discipline of art. You have their years of drawing hundreds of hands, or rendering crumpled up paper. Anonymous work that has little to do with your soul, but everything to do with your ability to express it.
At this point in your career as an artist/author, which medium do you prefer?
Art is joy and comfort. Writing? God, writing is hell. But I love the beautiful, evil medium anyway.
Your work is also in the permanent collection at MoMA. Would we recognize any of that work from a specific time-frame in your memoir?
The MoMA owns my “May Day General Strike” print, which I’m happy about, of course, but it also feels a bit like a butterfly pinned dead to a wall, when once it was causing trouble on streets across the world. Only dead things are in museums, right?