Softspoken artist and performer Molly Crabapple is anything but shy when it comes to putting her sexy artistic image to work. From modeling for sites like Things To Look At to burlesque performance, to her driving passion, illustration, 22-year-old Crabapple (nee Jen Caban of Far Rockaway, Queens) looks at the world from a lens of nostalgic eroticism, bringing to life her visions of Victorian England and Rococo France. She just sold her first illustration to the New York Times Sunday Style section, and has also drawn for Screw,Playgirl,The Wall Street Journal and other publications. But Crabapple's not just dishing up other people's visions; she has her own line of mugs, buttons, holiday cards and hip-hugging hot pants for sale on her site, and has even created an ode to "her favorite addiction" in the form of the limited edition, self-penned and -illustrated book Coffees of Many Lands. She's done a whole lot more, too, so read on to get Crabapple's take on modeling, designing tattoos, getting detained in a Turkish jail for sketching, and dirty artwork.
Your bio states that you learned to draw in a Parisian bookstore, and later sketched your way into a Turkish jail. What exactly happened there?
Well, the bookstore was Shakespeare and Co, which has been housing drifter kids for the last 50 years. Run by George Whitman, it’s a gorgeously bohemian place with thumb sized roaches, squat toilets and no working showers. I tended the cash register in exchange for sleeping on the floor.
The Turkish jail? When I was eighteen, I traveled to the Iranian/Iraqi/Turkish border region called Kurdistan. Ten years ago, the Kurds fought a (failed) guerilla war of independence against the Turks, which resulted in Kurdistan crawling with military police. Now, these military police are mostly nice eighteen year old boys drafted into the army and plunked down in the middle of nowhere. I got detained for sketching. They claimed they thought I was a spy, but I think they just wanted to talk to an easy American girl.
You’ve done illustrations for various publications, from Screw to Playgirl, but I’m most intrigued by your Wall Street Journal credit. What did you draw for them?
Nothing too exciting. Businessmen skiing in summer. Boticelli’s Venus behind reflective glass.
Fleshbot called you "the ultimate altporn renaissance woman"—do you agree with that assessment?
I never really considered what I did porn. In our vagina saturated culture, I couldn’t imagine too many guys wanking it to my bare tits. Maybe I’m naïve. I’d say the ultimate alt-porn Renaissance woman is model/photographer/Amazon Julie Strain. Wow.
You’ve done some really hot fetish modeling, displaying corsets, lingerie, fishnets, and of course, your body, for sites like thingstolookat.com, including one of you naked covered in Styrofoam peanuts. What’s the most fun you’ve had on a photo shoot? How much say did you get to have in the design of the shots?
Fun shoots? Well, I once got to roll around in 36 pink cupcakes for the photographer Amy Rivera. I hadn’t eaten all day, so I devoured those suckers! Amy bakes really well.
The most highly styled shoots tend to be the most brutal. For the one on thingstolookat.com, Burke had me holding an arched back in the freezing cold for nearly seven hours while he got his shots. Aaron Hawks, another photographer who I’m insanely proud to have worked with, built a room sized set for me to pose in, and also had me pose in the freezing cold, after he sprayed me with ice water, cinched me into a 20 inch corset, and threw flour on me- for five hours. Both are awesome guys who take stunning photos-but damn, posing is work.
Amount of input? It varies depending on photographer.
Did you used to have a modeling site, mollycrabapple.net, and if it’s no longer online, why’d you take it down? Do you feel like you’re taken less seriously as an artist when people find out you’ve done this type of modeling?
I took mollycrabapple.net down after an art director told me he had tried to go to my illustration website several months previously but found my modeling one instead and assumed I didn’t do illustration. Since art is how I make my living, and I’m barely modeling any more, I didn’t want to risk the confusion.
Do people take me less seriously? Sometimes—but hopefully not for long.
Out of all your creative outlets, is there one that you most identify with, or do they all hold a special place in your heart?
I’m an artist. Everything else is a hobby or a way to turn a buck.
Your style, from your artwork to your burlesque, calls forth the Victorian age. What about that era is so appealing to you? Do you feel like you were born at the wrong time, or do you enjoy splicing modern elements with old-fashioned ones?
I like funny things and I like ornately detailed things. The Victorian era is both and then some. Would I want to live then? Yikes, no! But I love to steal the aesthetic.
In your artiste’s statement, you share that your favorite subject is artifice, and are intrigued by what lies underneath people’s outer masks. Do you think modern culture is too in-your-face, especially when it comes to sex? Is less more?
I used to be all for modern libertinism until I realized that many of the girls wearing Tight Pussy t-shirts weren’t having orgasms. I’m a crotchety old woman at heart. It all seems forced and passionless to me- not to mention bad aesthetics. Be a lady, even if you’re doing ten guy gangbangs each night.
You go by Molly Crabapple. Where'd the name come from, and why do you use it rather than your given name, Jen Caban?
I never really liked the name Jen, and spent my entire gawky adolescence plotting to change it. I got Molly Crabapple from an old boyfriend who used it to comment on my disposition. Now, it’s more of a brand name than a proper alias. Certainly more memorable than Jen, and I don’t share it with anyone else.
Along with A.V. Phibes, you're running Dr. Sketchy, where attendees draw burlesque girls. Why’d you choose to do this, and how did the first one go? Do you have to have previous artistic experience to participate?
When I was in college I worked as an artist’s model. The (usually) dull, dehumanizing reality of posing didn’t jive with my romantic expectations. Me and A.V. started Dr. Sketchy’s as a place where models could make a fair wage and express their amazing personalities, while sketchers could partake of that pseudo-bohemian atmosphere so many of us went to art school for.
The first Dr Sketchy’ was a real success. Around 30 people showed up, drank, drew the luscious Dottie Lux (who’s just as good a model as she is a burlesque dancer), competed in contests and had fun. Upcoming models include Amber Ray and two handsome men who will pose together wearing nothing but strategically placed sombreros. No experience necessary to attend.
Some of your paintings are of actual people, from The World Famous *Bob* to the winners of your Lucky Lady contest. How is the process of sketching an actual person different from characters you make up? Which one’s more difficult?
Drawing a likeness is much more difficult. I can’t just cover sloppiness up with swirly hair. When I draw someone I usually crash their house and take tons of photos, then make sketches from those.
Once upon a time, you made money drawing people’s pets. What kinds of animals were you commissioned to draw, and who hired you to do custom pet drawings?
I drew dogs for many nice ladies at twenty dollars a pop.
What’s the most unusual or outrageous project you’ve been a part of? Is there anything, from modeling to artwork, that you’ve refused to partake in and if so, why??
Well, one gentleman wanted to come by my house to be drawn naked. But only if it was late at night. And only if I was alone. Sorry, NYCSpankie@aol.com, but 100 dollars doesn’t buy that kind of affection.
Speaking of artist A.V. Phibes, you call her the Crystal Conner [Cristal Connors] to your Nomi Malone [a Showgirls reference], which is one of the best descriptions of anyone I’ve ever seen. Can you elaborate on that? What’s your working relationship like?
I met Alia while I was still in art school, and she’s been an enormous help and influence on me. She’s taught me about everything from the mechanics of running a small business to how to hammer a nail up my nose. Starving artists shmartists. A.V. Phibes is proof that you can make art, make bank, stay sharp and employ hot male assistants.
One of the services you offer is tattoo design. Can you tell me about a tattoo you’ve done? Is it nerve-wracking to design something that will be on someone’s body permanently?
I designed a tattoo once of Alice, the Mad Hatter and the March Hare chasing each other around a giant pocket watch. I don’t think I’d be nervous unless I was actually inking it.
You worked as an artist’s model, and claim that the people who ran the classes were uncomfortable with nudity. How can that be?
There’s a strong drive for artists to feel like professionals. And drawing naked people looks the most sordid and unprofessional to the outside world. I feel that often, in art teachers' quests to prove that nothing unseemly is going on, they forget their models are people rather than platonic solids.
You’ve also written and illustrated a book called Coffees of Many Lands. Which country or city has the best coffee? How much of it do you drink a day, and does it help fuel your work?
Coffee’s best in Paris, bien sur. I drink five cups a day, and hope to die of caffeine poisoning- like Balzac.
In February, you’re running Tarts and Flowers, a Valentine’s themed art show, which you also did last year. What can we expect from that?
What can you expect? Pornographic art. Lady J gogo-ing in the window wearing nothing but body paint. Odd artifacts. Hand bound show catalogues. Pink walls. Cigarette girls. Door prizes. Costume prizes. And, for raffle, the secret of true love.
Your promo for Tarts and Flowers said there’ll be drawings that are “too dirty for the website.” What do these entail, and why are they too dirty for the website?
Um, well, err . . . My dirty art is really, really obscene. Like making pornographers blush obscene. The last piece I did in that category is entitled “Cockfighting.” Which is what it is-literally. If you want to see more, you’ll just have to join my mailing list at mollycrabapple.com. I send a piece of dirty art each month to subscribers.
I keep my ink pornography off the website because I like getting respectable, mainstream magazine work. Maybe even a children’s book one day.
You’re also producing a burlesque sideshow, featuring glass walking and eating by girls in red cocktail dresses. Can you tell me more about it?
It all started when I danced burlesque at Lady I’s Burlesque Against Breast Cancer benefit. Lady I, a rockabilly promoter, wanted to learn sideshow stunts. The above mentioned A.V. Phibes spent years performing sideshow as Vulnavia, Queen of Nails. Before we knew it, we were all munching light bulbs, walking on glass and sticking long hard objects up our noses.
Fast forward four months. We’ve performed around town (Museum of Sex, Pyramid Club, Pete’s Candy Store), and are debuting on January 20th with a monthly show at Mo Pitkin's.
While there are many brilliant sideshow performers, what makes us different is that we’re not tattooed punks. We perform in cocktail dresses, with etiquette and on a sparkly, red, girl-shaped bed of nails. Softer side of sideshow indeed!
How did you get started doing burlesque, and what are your favorite songs to dance to?
Last summer, I started doing posters for Albert Garzon’s Ixion Burlesque. Before I knew it, I was backstage breathing Dirty Martini’s perfume, my fate sealed. My best times performing come when I get to dance with the Beat Circus. Their crazy carny improv grabs rhythm out of even lousy dancers like me. A true high point was when we opened for the Dresden Dolls at a loft party in Boston. They played, I ate fire and shook my tatas. Amanda Palmer is perhaps the most beautiful woman in the world.
When you were 17, you took off with $300 in your pocket and spent 3 years traveling the globe. Did you ever have any moments of doubt, and how did you go about making a living and figuring out where to go next? How did this early period of travel shape who you are today?
I had plenty of moments of doubt. Once, on a night train to Marrakech, my wallet got knicked, the policeman tried to argue me into having sex, and, when I arrived at 5am, all the hotels were closed. Luckily, I talked a cleaning lady into letting me sleep in the hotel kitchen. While I lay there, sleep deprived and almost broke, I thought “this is what it’s like to be at the end of your rope.” But it’s at the end of your rope that magic happens.
Doing crazy, harebrained things like traveling alone at 17 through Morocco taught me to do crazy, harebrained things like making a living drawing pictures in New York.
For those looking for last minute gifts, or who can’t go to all their favorite stores because of the strike, what kinds of holiday gifts are you offering?
Try my Coffee of Many Lands book. Really, it’s seriously my coolest thing to date. If you’re not into useless art objects, I recommend my poison mugs and my new, soon to be added Dottie hairpins, made by badbuttons.com and inspired by that grease-painted muse, Dottie Lux.
Photo by Aeric Meredith-Goujon
Visit www.molllycrabapple.com for more information. The next Dr. Sketchy Anti-Art School will be held January 14th from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. at The Lucky Cat 245 Grand Street, Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Pyrate Sisters All Girl Sideshow will be held January 20th from 10 p.m. to 2 a.m. at Mo Pitkin's House of Satisfaction, 34 Avenue A. Tarts and Flowers show hangs from February 8 - 27, with an opening party on February 11th from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m. at Jigsaw Gallery, 526 East 11th Street.