Hailed as “one of New York’s coolest denizens” by the NY Post, 27-year-old burlesque dancer turned illustrator Molly Crabapple has had her art exhibited in galleries throughout the world. In addition to illustrating over a dozen books and graphic novels, Crabapple’s drawings have been featured in many award-winning publications, ranging from The New York Times to Screw, Juxtapoz and Marvel Comics. An emerging entrepreneur, Crabapple is the founder of Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School, an innovative chain of adult life drawing salons held monthly in cities across the globe.
Crabapple perfected her colorful aesthetic while working in a Paris bookstore, spending hours copying images from Alice and Wonderland and A Tart’s Progress. Crabapple’s work, complimented by her fantastic attention to detail, transcends the standards of conventional illustration while nonetheless retaining a familiar humor and wit. Her characters, mostly women, consist of corseted aristocrats and scantily clad burlesque dancers pulled from Victorian England and Rococo France whose suggestive smiles and sarcastic smirks serve to both tantalize and intellectually engage the audience.
Crabapple’s most recent endeavor is a collaborative web comic created with illustrator John Leavit. Recently published by DC Comics’ Zuda imprint, Puppet Makers is a steam punk murder mystery set in a fictionalized 17th-century Versaille in which aristocrats don ornately crafted robotic shells. Laden with scandal, debauchery, and most importantly cyborgs, this comic is not to be missed. For more information on Puppet Makers, check out: http://www.zudacomics.com/node/1805.
Josh Freydkis: What do you consider the most significant distinction between the work you did for Screw/Playboy, etc. and your “fine art”?
Molly Crabapple: I’ve done a wide variety of illustration work- from She-Hulk comics for Marvel to New York Times illustrations to porn comics. While initially, illustration was pure gun-for-hire stuff, over the years, it’s increasingly merged with my fine art. Art directors know what interests me- hyper detail, sex-work, glam and snark and artifice and corruption- and they come to me wanting that. The high point of my fine art/illustration crossover was my two year collaboration with The Box. I both did their t-shirt and logo designs, created giant backdrops, and hung out each night by the stage door, sketching their dancers. I later turned these sketches into fine art pieces, chock full of coke-snorting piggies and performer gods. They were my muse and client at once.
Generally, I think “fine art” and “illustration” are pretty recent concepts, and I just focus on creating compelling images.
JF: What does the term “outsider” artist mean to you?
MC: My great grandfather, Samuel Rothbort, was a Jewish post-impressionist who’s considered “outsider” enough to hang at the Outsider Art Fair. I guess an outsider artist is just someone who makes art outside of the traditional commercial gallery/museum structure. Sometimes I suspect gallery owners like outsider artists because they don’t read contracts.
JF: Would you say that artists eager to participate within the “inside” of the artworld are more susceptible to exploitation? In your experience, are galleries more inclined to protect or exploit their artists?
MC: Galleries come in as many varieties as humans do. I’ve seen ones run by passionate visionaries and by unhinged scam artists. There are galleries that will spread your name across the world, and ones that will never pay you for the artwork they sold. I do think the vision of an artist as someone airily divorced from material concerns is one that can lead to some terrible, terrible deals.
JF: Figureheads often emerge to represent particular demographics in the art world (think Barry McGee for the San Francisco Mission School or Dash Snow/Dan Colen for the downtown scene, etc.) Would you consider yourself a figurehead or a representative in the art world, burlesque world or any world?
MC: Certainly not the art world! I’ll leave that for Mr. Deitch and Mr. Banksy. And the burlesque world has Miss Teese as its convenient pop cultural indicator. I just get lots of press, for which I’m really grateful.
JF: How do you define artistic success? By this definition would you consider yourself successful?
MC: I used to define it as being able to live off my art. Now I define it as being able to pull off my most ludicrous and grandiose projects. I’m working on it.
JF: What is the most ambitious (or ludicrous) project you have ever worked on?
MC: Right now I’m throwing a party at a speakeasy in Brooklyn called The Art Monkeys Ball. It’s a play on the traditional Parisian Bal des Qua’t'z Arts, and I’m covering this giant red warehouse in giant versions of my art. There will be dozens of dancers and girls hanging from the ceiling and absinthe and mass games of exquisite corpse and I really, really hope the damn thing comes together.
JF: Do you feel that art can and should be taught in a formal class-room setting?
MC: Formal classroom settings are great for some people. Myself, I learned better from bugging artists I admired until they shared their gessoing skills. I’m very opposed to the credentialization of art though. Study in an art school if it floats your boat, but the only piece of paper that should be getting you a job is the one with your drawing on it.
JF: On your website, it says you speak regularly about “DIY empires and entrepreneurship for creatives. ” With the expansion of Dr.Sketchy’s from an isolated project into one of the largest art salon chains in the world, does that DIY aesthetic remain? Can you expand upon this notion of a DIY empire?
MC: Dr. Sketchy’s is DIY to the bone, no matter how large it gets. This is because we don’t start any of the branches ourselves. Every single Dr. Sketchy’s branch, be it in Zagreb or Brazil or Hong Kong, is started by a local who found out about us and thought we were cool. While Starbucks goes into a country and sets up its stores, a DIY Empire is a grassroots phenomenon started by locals.
JF: What were you like in high school?
MC: Gothy. Dorky. Hated.
JF: What do your parents think about Dr. Sketchy’s and your work for Screw/Playgirl? Are you ever embarrassed by the erotic nature of your work?
MC: My parents are pretty excellent. My father is an academic, and my mom’s an artist. They have both come to many Dr. Sketchy’s and are pretty stoked I get to do things like lecture in Brazil or speak at MoMA. I talk to my mother for hours every day.
JF: In our often hyper-sexualized culture, what does it mean to be truly erotic/sexy? Where do you draw the line between erotic and crude?
MC: My work’s not really erotic. My tribe, my muses, are sex-workers and dancing girls. When I draw pasties or naked girls, I’m drawing these because these are part of their lives (and were part of my life when I was a member of their ranks). But my work itself is way more grotesque and funny (and yes, crude) than straight sexy.
JF: Who are your favorite characters from Dr. Sketchy’s?
MC: Amber Ray is my muse forever. Here’s a picture of her next to a giant blowup of one of my paintings. Look at how closely she resembles what I draw.
JF: Does having a background as a sexworker/stripper lend itself to maintaining a creative practice?
MC: There’s a often a sordid stint lurking in the past of many non-trustafarian artists, for the simple reason that, in the US at least, jobs for artists are lowpaid and hard to come by, and the naked industries pay as much as you might make as a lawyer, for many less hours
JF: Can you comment on the work of artists such as Annie Sprinkle or Cosey Fanni Tutti?
MC: I’m unfamiliar with their work, so I can’t comment. As an activist, educator and writer though, I adore Annie Sprinkle.
JF: What are some other examples of sex workers successfully crossing over in the art world?
MC: I don’t see it as crossing over. I see it as “I am a broke artist. What alot of cash I could make hourly if I did this other thing, and my art is supported. Woohoo! I’m more successful, and don’t have to have this side-job.” You’d never talk about a waiter crossing over into being an artist.