Miscellanea and Ephemeron
07/19/2005 Archived Entry: "An Interview with Molly Crabapple"
An Interview with Molly Crabapple
Molly Crabapple is a New York-based artist, model, and dancer. She very kindly gave artist, illustrator, photographer, comic book, and graphic novel creator Molly Kiely, who did J LHLS a huge favor (because Ginger Mayerson really knows how to beg), this interview in July of 2005. We here at J LHLS thank them both from the bottom of our editorial hearts.
Molly Kiely: First of all, Crab Apple or Cra' Bopple? What inspired you to choose a pseudonym? I know my mom wished for years that I used one, but it never occurred to me. (But then my name is already Molly…)
Molly Crabapple: Crab-Apple. No relation to the Simpsons teacher!
I got my pseudonym when I was living in Paris. My boyfriend of the time, a playwright liberally plagiarizing from Sheridan, made a character after me. The disreputable lass hangs from a gibbet by act three.
He named her Molly Crabapple, because, like me, he didn't think her very sweet.
MK: What did you learn in your Mediterranean travels that you've applied to your art in a significant way, that you didn't learn in art school?
MC: I learned to draw while traveling. Traveling gives you large chunks of free time and an intimate acquaintance with boredom (think 32 hour bus rides). To keep myself busy, I got a fancy sketchbook, and started doodling. I drew everywhere- in squares, on trains, to thank people who had given me a place to sleep. Sometimes, I drew six or seven hours a day. An art school I know says everyone has ten thousand bad drawings in them. I got a lot of those drawings done with in Europe- and made some fine ones as well.
But being a broke kid with a backpack teaches you more than pen technique. Traveling gave me a PhD in wile, guile, cunning, and skullduggery. On the road, I've done just about everything to save a buck. I snuck into Spanish parks to steal oranges. I begged butter off of restaurants and bread from bakeries. I slept in hotel kitchens, snuck into mosques, bought books with rocks (very significant rocks, mind you), and haggled harder and more vindictively than any vendor of designer Gucci knock-offs.
This is the best training for running a small business that I know.
MK: I'm a visual artist, but most of my profound creative influences weren't. You mention being inspired to live in Paris by Anais Nin. Who are your other non-visual artist inspirations?
MC: I grew up an obsessive reader of biographies. Two major inspirations? Richard Burton, the first Westerner to sneak into Mecca, is responsible for a lot of my Middle Eastern tomfoolery. Not to mention two years spent studying Arabic.
I also love Oscar Wilde. Not only is he arch and witty and incisive, but he's also someone who became famous ten years before he did anything more noteworthy than walking around in velvet breaches. I don't consider Wilde a gay martyr so much as a martyr to the myth of celebrity. My favorite Wilde story is The Remarkable Rocket, a satire on self importance by a very self-important man. …
In real life, my friend A.V. Phibes, owner of EvilKid Productions, is proof that you can make art, make money, stay sharp, and have an office full of hunky personal assistants.
MK: I live in the southwest, where Southwest Art runs rampant. Particularly ghastly to me are the romantic "noble savage" portraits painted in full neon colors. This is beyond kitsch, totally false. Similarly, many images of burlesque dancers are glorified and lovely. I'm guilty of this myself -- I draw a little, and the girls are usually cute and perfect. But, do you have any desire to show the downside of this life? I'm thinking particularly of a journal entry of yours describing waking up with caked makeup and black rimmed eyes...
MC: Pretty girl art is great. I've got a Rion Vernon calendar on my wall, filled with big eyed, big busted cartoon cheesecake. But sometimes, after go-go dancing, when you're schlepping to the subway at 3 am in fake eyelashes and hooker heels, you feel less like cheesecake and more like ground up meat. I want my work to show the aching backs, the fake smiles, the low wages, the greasepaint and the sweat of performance as well as the tassels and sequins.
MK: Your marketing is very focused -- I particularly love your Street Team. I've come to the point where I just can't draw if there are dollar signs attached to it or it's someone else's idea. Is there a difference in quality of or your approach to your work for hire and your own creative work? How do you compartmentalize "I'm doing this to eat" and "my muse is calling"? Is there a difference?
But illustration is different than fine art. When I'm drawing for myself, I experiment. I don't care so much about keeping a consistent style, or if, while stippling, I leave a big ink splot on the page. I can work around that.
With a client, I'm hired to create, in a specific style, by a specific deadline, the client's idea. If the client has good ideas, this is fun, and expands your repertoire. But if the client has bad ideas… Fortunately, most of my clients know my strengths and give assignments that suit my sort of snarky, very Victorian way of wielding a pen.
But, would I give up illustration, with all it's awful clients, for a life of waiting tables in artistic purity? Not on your life.
I think the idea of artistic poverty is one of the ways galleries keep artists down. If we shouldn't be doing this for the money, then why should we protest high commissions or asked to be paid on time? I'm more inspired by Salvador Dali's model of an artist as a good businessman. It wasn't for nothing Breton called him Avida Dollars.
MK: Can you expound a bit on kitsch and artifice, and the appeal it holds for you?
MC: I don't know if kitsch is my thing, but, in grandiose moods, I see myself as artifice's defender. Artifice- or lying- is the basis of Western art. We take an honest piece of paper, and through trickery we show palaces and tigers, courtesans and teddy bears. There's a reason the Bible banned graven images. They're dishonest. Representational art, novels, performing arts- for me these are black magic. Even Keene paintings have a whiff of sulfur.
That's the hoity-toity reason. Here's the visceral one. Despite not having a performing bone in my body, I love showbiz. I love sitting in the sweaty upstairs dressing room at the Knitting Factory and painting myself a new face. I love how, onstage, you create an entirely different self in the same way you create a canvas. I love how stage garments reshape of the body. I love the cinch of a corset. I love the power of being what you're not.
I love how a good photograph doesn't so much as capture a moment as invent one -- a moment far more poignant and symbolic than the one when the picture was taken.
So, I like artifice cause it's the basis of what I do. And I like it cause it's fun.
MK: Most of your work -- just what I've seen on your website -- is very cheeky, and really, G-rated. If I had kids, they could look at your work (which is probably why I shouldn't have kids). But I would imagine that the adventures you had during your travels are a bit more edgy and dark. The Turkish prison must have been stressful at the very least. Do you use any of those elements in your work? Is there an angry Molly Crabapple?
MC: Humor's one of the great virtues in my little pen and ink world. Where other people might denounce, I poke fun. But I am a sharp-tongued little git, and some of my favorite pieces reflect this. In Dinner Party, two twins conspire to poison an aristocratic lecher. One distracts him with her boobs while the other pours the arsenic. I got my start drawing for porn mags, and some of my erotic pictures are my meanest. In one, a Rococo girl goes down on a masked aristocrat. The banner reads, "In Society, Lulu wondered, is it more important to save face or give it."
Other pictures deal with women growing old and dying, with useless rich and drudging poor, with making a living appealing to really unappealing men... I just draw them with a funny, detailed pen.
MK: Evil onions, drunken clowns, tapeworm stripteasers: do you have any interest in children's books? Do you write stories?
MC: I write lots of stories. Or, more accurately, I talk about writing lots of stories. I've done complete illustrations for "Nine Naughty Tales of Old New York," nine interlocking stories of how an ambitious showgirl, a drunk reporter, a fake mystic and two forces of history lead to the Astor House burning down on the eve of 1901. Have I written these tales? Nope. Do I earnestly plan to? Yep.
More reliably, I write a series of essays on the jittery highs and comic depths of working as a nude model. Since I don't model much anymore, I write more about high-falutin things like objectification and artifice, and less about old men having heart attacks on me. My dream is to turn Confessions of a Naked Model into an illustrated column. Do you hear me, Playboy?
And I'd love to do a children's book. In fact, I have one all planned out...
MK: Do you ever work in three dimensions? There's almost a Rube Goldberg-esque quality to your drawing. Rube meets Niki de St. Phalle. This is more of an observation than a question, but I am curious. Plus, the idea of you in a French Maid outfit wielding an arc welder is intriguing.
MC: I've done a lot of hand bound books- mostly to give as gifts. A few years ago, for the Terrible Toy Fair at CBGB's 313, I made a series paper dolls called A Paper Tart's Progress. Through changes in outfits, our heroine, Mimi, goes from a Moulin Rouge chorine to a high-paid mistress, only to turn artist's model and die for love. It comes with a little drawing of a bloodstained handkerchief that attaches to Mimi's hand.
I love artists books, and have plans to start making some limited editions.
And then, being an altruist, I provided Molly Crabapple brand hot pants to the Gotham Girls Roller Derby. Does that count as 3-D?
MK: You have carte blanche at your favorite art supply store. What brands do you favor -- what would you buy?
MC: Wow, I'm excited now! I buy lots of really thick, creamy Aquabee paper, the kind with a little bit of tooth. Fresh pen nibs with very fine tips, sharp as razors. Dr. Martin's black India ink and concentrated watercolors (they come with an eyedropper). Mechanical pencils. And a few insane purchases-like Chinese ink brushes or lithography stones- for arts that I never intend to master but seem so yummy in the store.
MK: I carry my art supplies in a Chinese silk brocade box. I like my tools to be in a lovely case and I have an antique desk I draw at -- it helps set the mood. Do you just pick up and draw anywhere, or do you have a special place in your home? Do you listen to music while you draw?
MC: I like to draw at cafes with a bunch of friends. The art I do is tedious- lots of tiny, curly lines. But when I'm chatting and guzzling espresso, the ink seems to fly over the paper. Coffee's my constant companion. At home, I draw at my living room table with incense burning. Sometimes, I smoke a hookah.
I want a Chinese silk box…
MK: Your fascination with burlesque and Victoriana is evident. What are your current burgeoning interests -- what can we expect next? Postmodern? Jazz baby?
MC: I've started looking at early 19th century American poster art. You know, poster art before they got the hang of it. It's creepy and stiff and overly detailed with lots of windy text. All the children look like midgets. I'm convinced that, given their ridiculous literalism and hallucinatory detail, Central Lithography Co, must have been huffing printers ink.
I love old illustrated ephemera -- matchbooks, cigar boxes, ticket stubs. It reminds me of a time when art was part of everyday life. I'd like to start designing some myself- both for gallery shows and actual use.
Being a burlesque girl, I spend lots of time in Coney Island . I danced in the Mermaid Ball and have a piece hanging in the Coney Island Museum. And, being surrounded by these disreputable sideshow types, I picked up a few tricks. I can eat fire and hammer a nail up my nose. No, these don't help at job interviews. Yet.
MK: Since this is a literary journal, could you give me a reading list? What books have spoken to you and lingered? If I want to understand what's it like to be you, what should I read?
MC: The entire Sandman series, Crimson Petal and the White, Circus of Dr. Lao, Complete Works of Dorothy Parker, How to Survive and Prosper as an Artist, Secrets of the Flesh -- Life of Colette, Varieties of Religious Experience, The Rubaiyat, Elleman's biography of Oscar Wilde, Teach Yourself Turkish (I've forgotten most of it), good biography of Richard Burton, League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Tart's Progress.
MK: When I'm interviewed, I'm generally disappointed in the questions. What question didn't I ask you about your art that you would have loved to answer? And what's the answer?
MC: This is one of the best interviews I've ever gotten to answer. But you could have at least asked me how it feels to be the greatest artist of the 21st century, an Olympic cyclist, and save orphans in my spare time.
Don't worry. I forgive you.
MK: Ha! Thank you, Molly.
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