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Features / Art

Show and Tell: Molly Crabapple shows us her wigs, pens and sketchbooks

First published in Printed Pages Winter 2014

Words by

James Cartwright

Photography by

Clayton Cubitt

Molly Crabapple has had what conservative mothers would call a colourful past. Her route to finding artistic fame has been unorthodox and exciting, eschewing art schools and traditional teaching methods to forge her own creative path. She’s set up life drawing classes that embrace the inherently sexual nature of the naked form, worked as the in-house artist at a notorious New York night spot and counts burlesque dancers, porn stars and radical street artists among her closest friends. She also makes bitingly satirical political artwork and extraordinary reportage illustration – something she was compelled to do by the arrival of the Occupy Wall Street movement outside her flat in 2011. In fact Molly has carved a niche for herself in the modern artistic landscape, as a columnist, artist and political activist; a Toulouse Lautrec character who’s left the cabaret club to wrestle with bigger issues. On top of all this she’s got a studio packed full of unusual objects, all with interesting stories behind them, eight of which she took the time to tell us about…

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1. Stoya’s Wig

I did a big show last year called Shell Game that featured these massive paintings I’d done about the Middle-Eastern crises and rebellions of 2011. In addition to all my paintings I had a number of installations going on all around the show. One of them was something I collaborated on with my friend Stoya. Right before the French Revolution there was a princess who thought it’d be terribly clever to wear a replica of the Parisian bread riots in her wig, with little cannons and peasants instead of the usual ships and flowers. So she had a miniature Parisian bread riot with working cannons on top of her head. It was quite a triumph for the wigmaker’s arts. Later of course her head was on a stick – it ended badly for her – but I was so intrigued by this idea and thought it was a fascinating attempt to co-opt and render harmless the thing that’s eventually going to kill you. So for my show I was talking with Stoya about something we could do together and I had the idea that she should bathe naked in a bathtub of money and we’d have a wig made for her that would have a replica of the Occupy Wall Street protests in it. It was made by this guy called Isaac Davidson who makes all these wigs for drag queens and has little riot cops and protesters and the big red sculpture. So at both my openings Stoya bathed naked in fake money while wearing this incredible wig.

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2. Leather-Bound Drawing Book

When I was 17 I went to Europe for a while. While I was in Paris I went to Shakespeare & Company and bought this leather journal with marble end papers that was just beautiful – the nicest thing I’d ever owned. I decided I wanted to fill it with a travel journal of my adventure. I really wasn’t a good artist up until that point even though I knew I wanted to be one, but I was really motivated because I had this beautiful thing I’d decided to draw and write in, and and knew I wanted to fill before the end of my six month trip. I decided that I wasn’t going to draw any shit in it or ruin any pages or cut out anything, because I want this beautiful object to be complete. So I now have a record of my time in Europe from a time when I was just sort of discovering who I was. It’s filled with microscopic spidery writing and with drawings that I did every single day. I don’t read the writing any more because I think it’s all pretty embarrassing – loads of melodramatic things about boys – but I’m proud of the drawings in there. I’m proud that I had the patience to just sit and make these incredibly detailed images of the world around me. Some of them I think are still pretty good and I wouldn’t be at all ashamed to show them. But nobody will ever read the writing because 17-year-old Molly is a really dim person.

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3. Singer Sewing Machine

This is a Singer sewing machine that my great grandmother used to use. She was an immigrant from Belarus and was doing piecework on the lower east side of New York. At the turn of the century a lot of immigrants had these in-home sweatshops where their entire families were churning out clothing and selling it back to the factories. It was archetypal work for Jewish immigrants. This thing is so old that it doesn’t use electricity – you’d have had to have used a belt and pedalled with your feet to power it – but it’s this incredibly beautiful object for something that’s essentially the implement of a migrant worker. It’s engraved and inlaid with gold and it reminds me of an era when all objects had this incredible beauty and care invested in them, even those that were meant for poor people. On the one hand I love its ornate, maximalist aesthetic, but I also enjoy looking at the implications of an object like this; the conditions around it and that mix of something really beautiful that’s also used in quite a brutal context. It’s where the thinking behind a lot of my work comes from.

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4. Ganzeer Painting

In 2011 when all of these rebellions were kicking off I became internet friends with a number of other artists around the world who were also doing politically involved work. One of them was an Egyptian street artist named Ganzeer who was doing these giant murals and producing really powerful protest art against the military coup. Finally he had to leave Egypt and is living in New York right now, so since he’d come here and we’d been corresponding a lot, we became friends. For my birthday he gave me one of his original drawings which is of blue bra girl, an Egyptian protester who was beaten by military police during the protests in Tahrir Square. He’d calligraphed over her with the message “Of course the army protects the revolution”. It’s an incredibly powerful image, and an important piece of his too. I can’t believe he would give this to me for my birthday actually. It’s one of the coolest things I own and I’m so honoured to have it.

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5. Arches Sketch Pads

I have these arches sketchpads that are made from super cold-pressed watercolour paper – it’s like velvet – and they make my nib drag and all my lines super fine and precise. There’s a certain scratch that my pen makes on them that I can’t get on any other material. I live for that scratch! These are like my fucking fetish objects. I do at least one drawing on them every day and very often many more. I don’t use them in the field though. When I’m drawing on location I use other sort of floppy-covered notebooks that are large and off-white with just a little tooth to them, but the arches sketchbooks are much more precious, so I use them in the studio where I can fuck with them and throw ink on them; soak them in dye or throw salt on them. They can really take a beating.

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6. Francois Gillot Drawing Nibs

I found these nibs at my favourite art supply store in New York, called New York Central, which is a sort of mad alchemists store; half hardware store half shop selling witches potions. I use it really intensively because a lot of the specialist art supply stores have been gentrified out of New York. What’s left are these chain stores that are really good for art students but they don’t cater for weird, obscure tastes. They have every type of nib in stock, but I discovered the Francois Gillot ones because they shine like tiny little beetles. They’re razor thin with some flex and you can make a whole variety of lines with them. A lot of nibs are either a tube or a half tube – god this is so dorky – but they’re the same width and then narrow down into a point, but these look totally different. I buy them 300 at a time and go through about one every two drawings because I want to keep the intense fineness of the nib. It’s just this one type and one number and if they ever stop making them then I’ll be fucking furious and will most likely murder someone. My whole art style for ten years has been dependent on this little piece of metal and I need it so bad. It’s become an addiction.

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7. Katelan Foisey Box

My good friend Katelan Foisey is a wonderful artist, but she also considers herself a witch. I’m generally an atheist but I have this Salvador Dali quote; “Against religion for superstition,” that I take rather fondly. Katelan made me this beautiful hand-painted box with all these symbols on it. It’s green – my favourite colour – with lilies all over, and is just this incredibly exquisite thing. I fill it with secret stuff like old letters and it’s become a mythological object for me.

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8. Louboutins

When I was like 25 or 26 I got my first gig that paid actual money. I was designing a massive theatre for The Box which was this club I used to work at. Whenever I’d go there I’d always desperately be trying to fit in but I was so broke that I din’t even have a purse and I’d be carrying my art supplies in this little cardboard box. Then suddenly I got a nice paycheque – though they certainly tormented me for it – and as a symbol of actually having money I bought these very expensive high heels; these black Louboutin’s with red soles. They’re very symbolic to me. I remember going into the fancy store where they sold them, and I looked like shit as I generally did then, and everyone ignored me. But I realised I could afford these shoes and I was in a totally different financial position than I ever had been – or that any other member of my family had been. These are like my ruby slippers. I still wear them although they’re the most fucking painful shoes I’ve ever worn in my life. I can barely stand in them. But then Christian Louboutin was once asked why he designed such painful shoes, and he just said, “Oh the women who wear my shoes, they do not work standing up!” But I’ll suffer through that because they’re glamorous as fuck.