Molly Crabapple: ‘As the world changed, my art changed with it’

11 Mins read

Building bridges between art and journalism is a rising movement in the world of expression that uses drawings and words to tell stories.

This collaboration is commonly known as “illustrated journalism”.

New York-based artist, journalist and author, Molly Crabapple has established a marriage between the two that has not only been visually captivating but greatly impactful too.

This 33-year-old has gone from being a nude model to being called “Occupy’s greatest artist” by author, Matt Taibbi.

For more than 10 years, she’s been using her work to show the world how much strength art can have.

“Drawing gives you the permission and the extreme skill at looking. To draw well, you have to look hard, you have to look in a way that’s destructive of everything you knew, you have to look in a way that burns clichés into the ground.

“And that is powerful, that ability to see truly and freshly, that’s destructive to all the bullshit-isms, that’s destructive to all of the clichés that enslaved people, just looking and giving yourself permission to look can be a revolutionary act,” says Molly.

As the year of 2016 was coming to an end, my family and I had the pleasure of hosting Molly in Bangalore, India at Bose Compound.

Aside from slightly nervously photographing her drawing a gorgeous mural of a cat under a canopy of trees encircled within a 100-year-old bungalow, I also had the chance to learn more about some of the many adventures she’s explored in her recently published memoir, Drawing Blood.


Cover of Molly Crabapple’s book, Drawing Book.

Molly’s creative life began at the age of four when she was living in Queens, New York.

She didn’t think she was particularly talented when she was young, but that it was the ‘monomania’ inside of her that kept the fire burning the more she continued enhancing her passion.

Genetics and upbringing both play a role in understanding the roots of her artistic talent.

Her father is a Marxist professor and her mother is an illustrator too. Apart from being inspired by the art her mother produced, she showed Molly that art isn’t just a “pie in the sky ideal but that art was often a prosaic job that put food on the table.”

Her father taught her to pay attention to the representation of what art can mean, “Always question authority and always be interested,” he once said to her.

Her parents’ advice always resonated with Molly but it was only until later in her life that she found a way to put those sometimes contrasting influences into a singular practice.

When she was in high school and went by her given name Jennifer Caban, she’d be the girl at the back of the classroom wearing headphones that were blaring the tunes of Nirvana.

Thinking back to her teen-years,the half Puerto Rican, half Jewish illustrator explicitly describes herself as being, “a rebellious edgy girl” who was a bane to her teachers.

It might be safe to say that Molly during the days of her youth was flying by the seat of her pants.

She detested being a student and raced towards graduating at the age of 17.

The moment school hit its due completion; she embarked on a journey to Europe, and found herself working the cash register at the Shakespeare & Company bookstore located next to the Cathédrale Notre-Dame De Paris.

George Whitman, the owner of the bookstore eventually invited her to live upstairs with other backpackers and intellectuals. “It seemed like this magical paradise, like something out of Hemingway” she told the NY Times.

Sketches from Molly Crabapple’s notebook when she was living in Paris at the age of 17. [Molly Crabapple]

The luxury of time and the freedom from responsibilities gave Molly the inspiration to draw.

She’d clutch onto a leather-bound notebook, a gift from an ex-lover, and filled it with vivid illustrations of what she discovered as she explored Paris, Lisbon, Seville, Spain, Marrakech and Morocco.

But Paris, she admits, was the city where she began to draw seriously.

Once she returned to America, she initially attempted to work a conventional job while living in Long Island, and she can’t help but laugh as she thinks back to that time, “I just couldn’t work a real job, man! I don’t know what I could do, I’m certainly not hardworking or cleaver enough to wait tables or do retail. Dear god, I don’t know, maybe I could sign up for medical testing.”

Instead, she’d hustle money by pinning up flyers in local stores to draw portraits of family pets and children.

She mainly drew dogs and earned at least $20 for each drawing.

It worked, for a while, until her determination to draw drove her to the Big Apple – New York City.

“New York was my muse. It was one of the first things I was thinking about, NY, sex and class – and the intersections and the way those things would rub up against each other and transform each other.”

At 19, she began working as a burlesque performer and naked model for places like Society of Illustrators and SuicideGirls.

In interviews in the past, she talks highly of being photographed by artists like Aron Hawks and Amy Rivera.

During our discussion, Molly also openly touched upon the not-so-pretty experiences of being photographed, “I want to be very clear, I wasn’t a fancy Playboy model.

It was much more something where guys would hire me to go to their cheap motel room and the camera was an excuse.

They just wanted a naked girl there.” No matter what the scenario though, she protected herself and her self worth, she writes, “I was a sleek machine for extracting money. Untouched.”

“I was the one who should be making images, I thought, not selling mine” she realised when she was 23, just as she was heading towards being financially stable enough through the art jobs she worked alongside her early endeavours.

For years, she worked as the in-house artist at a Manhattan Burlesque club The Box, in Soho New York, where she’d draw the performers, design curtains and t-shirts, and cover the walls with her illustrations.

“That was my artistic coming-of-age” she writes in her book.

A little boy and an overturned bus in Syria. [Molly Crabapple]

In 2005, Molly and illustrator A. V Phibes founded the Dr. Sketchy’s Anti- Art School, which combines cabaret, vaudeville and sketching.

Within the depths of this burlesque-themed bar a number of artists, designers, students, cartoonists and hipsters have been coming together to merge old-fashioned life-drawing sessions with a new and unconventional form of cabaret.

Molly takes pains to point out that in this institution, “the model, not the artist is that main focus of the night.” Today, this school has branches in more than eight cities across the globe.

But that was just the beginning of her many art projects. Another well-known project of hers was when she turned 28.

In celebration of her birthday, she raised $25,000 dollars on Kickstarter to lock herself in a rented hotel room, that she says, “put her insanity to test”.

She covered the walls with paper rolls, bought approximately 200 Sharpies and called it ‘Molly Crabapple’s Week in Hell’.

Musician’s muses and miscreants accompanied her whilst she decorated the apartment with intricate scribbles of tarts, squid beasts and multiple other fictional characters that were pouring from her imagination.

For the five days, the process was live-streamed to all her sponsors.

Those who followed her during the ride were also given the choice to buy, by the square foot, the pieces of the ‘Walls of Doom’.

Molly’s work as a nude model was another opportunity to strengthen her politics. She credits a lot of her early understanding of politics to her time as an illustrator for Spread, a publication by and for men and women in the sex industry.

“So when I was doing this work it was an incredible moment in New York, America, where women who worked either in the sex industry or had jobs that were kind of like the sex industry, like mine, were collaborating with each other.”

A lady walking in a burqa in Syria. [Molly Crabapple]

She worked with a lot of tough individuals at Spread who nevertheless weren’t taken seriously by most of larger society.

Despite some of the hardships that came with working there and being underestimated, the experience helped her find a political voice that had developed and grown powerful enough to propel her to the forefront  of the The Occupy Wall Street Movement in 2011.

“Working with these incredible, tough, smart, vocal people was of course not seen as serious because it was like, girls in G-strings.

“That’s not serious, they’re girls and then they’re in G-strings – dear god. It’s like bargain basement. It [Spread] was seen as frivolous and then when Occupy happened, it gave me space, I think it gave a lot of people space to be political in a broader way,” she explains.

The Occupy movement protested against social and economic inequality worldwide. Molly felt the urge to do something as she saw it unfold outside her apartment at Zucotti Park in New York.

She saw an opportunity to engage her art in politics and started to draw posters that were used extensively at the demonstrations.

One of her posters, a drawing of an octopus with, ‘Fight the Vampire Squid’ written on its belly, resonated with the disparate people involved in the movement and started to appear extensively in protests across the country.

“With my work for Occupy I am not just producing a cool, pretty image that decorates things, I am producing a functional and persuasive piece of work that’s going to be pasted on buildings and held up by demonstrators” she told  BBC during the time of the movement.

From that point on her art became increasingly political. By 2012, she successfully raised $64,000 on Kickstarter to exhibit her art show, Shell Game that depicted the world financial collapse and those who were fighting against authoritarian regimes worldwide.

She created nine enormous paintings that incorporated the essence of the movement accompanying her own brand of burlesque, surrealism, satire and symbolic animal sketch’s.

The author, Matt Taibbi, described her as being “Occupy’s greatest artist.” Together, in 2014, they collaborated to publish, The Divide: American Injustice in the Age of the Wealth Gap, a novel that explores the gap in the justice system between the rich and the poor.

“I use my art like a photojournalist might use their camera” says Molly when she began describing her involvement in illustrative journalism in recent years.

She’s had the opportunity to report on issues in Guantanamo Bay, Abu Dhabi’s migrant labor camps, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, the West Bank, and Iraqi Kurdistan.

Car Barricade in Syria. [Molly Crabapple]

Unlike other journalists Molly uses her drawings as a way to enter these places that are often very difficult to gain access to. “My drawings work across language, culture, social boundaries.

While I’m sure in ways my art has been underestimated, I also focus on the strength and the power that it gives me and I focus on how it can sneak you into places, how it can work as a lock pick. It can also be like a fancy gift-wrap you put around a bomb!”

She goes on to describe how, “Guantánamo bay, Cuba likes to pretend that it’s just an ordinary naval base in the middle of the Caribbean, nothing going on there”.

But Molly’s articles and illustrations are proof that there’s plenty that hasn’t made the headlines.

In 2013, VICE commissioned her to report on Guantánamo bay. She was one of three artists who visited the US Military Naval Base Guantanamo, which has been used as a detention centre since 1898.

Her first visit was during the pre-trials hearings of, 9/11 mastermind, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and his alleged co-conspirators.

During the hearings she was permitted to only have art supplies, but those helped her look past three layers of bulletproof glass.

According to Molly, Guantánamo is one of the ‘most frustrating’ places to be a journalist because of the elaborate rules that the Guantánamo prison system calls “operational security”.

“The pressroom was filled with soldiers watching our laptops, listening to us talk. US cell phones don’t get service at Gitmo” she wrote in an illustrated essay for Vice upon her return.

Her second visit in September later that year focused on the staff she spoke to and the detainees she saw from afar.

“Through the mirror’s dark glass, the detainees seemed preserved in amber. They were middle-aged, bearded, skinny—joking with one another like they’ve had no one else to speak to for the last decade” she explores in an article for Vice titled, Inside a Guantanamo Prision Tour – Molly Crabapple returns to Guantanomo Bay.

Armed fighters in Syria. [Molly Crabapple]

Even during her second visit journalists were not allowed to take pictures of people’s faces and rooms.

She said they were all taken on what she described as a “Potemkin tour” where they saw corners of dozens of men being force-fed or tortured. She also mentions discovering the prisons ‘gift shop’ that was filled with “Caribbean Kitsch that has Guantanamo Bay on it.”

She wanted to show the world what it was like being there and once again, she found a way to break through resistance:

“What I could do with art is that I could draw around censorship. As an artist I had the option of drawing around that.

This is an advantage of art being underestimated because photographs are seen as logistics and as proof, photos are so monitored but art, people don’t care about art, I could draw anything”.

In 2014, she turned photographs of war-ravaged regions in Syria into illustrations that accompanied words expressed by a Syrian writer who works under the pseudonym, Marwan Hishaw. ISIS forbade foreign journalists from reporting in cities like Raqqa, Aleppo and Mosul under their rule.

Since the war, most of these city’s neighbourhoods have remained undocumented, but this collective series between Molly and Marwan published in Vanity Fair marks their place in history, depicting some of the truth of what lay within rebel held areas.

A year after the collaborative series VICE commissioned her to draw and report in a suburb called Shuja’iyya in Gaza City.

It was flattened by Israel during a destructive campaign that included bombs, tank shells and bulldozers – an absolute ground invasion.

There, she witnessed a level of decimation that forced residents to live in smashed rubble and what she describes as being an “open air prison”.

When asked how she chooses exactly what to draw amongst the vast array of sights she’s confronted with at the time, Molly describes a moment she recalls from her memory of being there, “I saw these guys who were taking the rebar and straightening it by hand with rocks and primitive tools in order to resell it and I thought my god, there’s no better image that sums up the resilience of this place.

Taking this rebar, this twisted metal that people died on and turning it into a construction material, because there’s no other way to get materials but you’re going to build anyway and so I drew that scene.”

Two men in Gaza taking the twisted metal of rebar and straightening it by hand. [Molly Crabapple]

Molly’s reportage art focuses on her experience of being in places like Guantanamo or Syria.

For the readers and audience, she draws a window into the harsh realities of what she sees.

She illustrates what it’s like to be in the shoes of those who are vulnerable, “When I decide who I want to draw and what stories I want to tell, what I’m always interested in is pushing against cliché and pushing against what people think they know, in showing that the world is far vaster than people might’ve ever imagined, especially in pushing against the narrative of the victim.”

In a world where trust in the traditional news cycle has eroded, where fake news stories can have global consequences because of the emotional chord they strike, illustrative journalism and the art of people like Molly are poised to capture both ends of the spectrum.

Her art can show truth while also capturing a subjective emotional experience, an ability that has already managed to connect with an audience that have backgrounds as varied and colourful as her own.

Molly was circumspect about her next project but whatever it might be, it is guaranteed by its own nature to look beyond boundaries and through bulletproof glass, to paint the emotional truth.

If you’d like to learn more about Molly Crabapple, visit her website and follow her on twitter – @mollycrabapple



Featured Image by Tanviya de Girval Sapru

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About author
Tanviya is a third year Journalism student studying at the London College of Communication (UAL). In 2016, she interned at Deutsche Welle in Berlin from July to September and for Exberliner magazine in April. She spent two months interning at The Times of India in 2015 and for Greenpeace India in 2014. She is currently the Environment Editor at the IPF, the Editor for 'The Berlin Refugee Project' showcased on Tremr and a Freelance Journalist for The Refugee Journalism Project (London).
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