A Graphic Artist

Whimsical illustrator Molly Crabapple thinks outside The Box

Story by Jennifer Wright / Photography by Ellen Jong

Molly Crabapple

She may have skin as white as snow, and lips as red as blood, and there may even be an apple involved, but please, don’t be confused. Molly Crabapple is no cartoon character. She just draws them.

You may have spotted one of her works from her political series hanging in New York’s Museum of Sex. You’ll certainly be seeing more once Molly’s graphic novel, Scarlett Takes Manhattan, is released in July. Yet Scarlett’s escapades as she scales the social ladder in New York’s “gilded age” can hardly compare to Molly’s own life experiences. The heroine may contend with all manner of decadence over a period of time in vaudeville-era Manhattan — but Molly encounters riotous events almost nightly as The Box’s resident sketch artist. When skimming those drawings you can identify some of the fascinating personalities of modern Manhattan’s most debauched nightclub. And the burlesque acts there, which Molly always immortalizes in her inimitable, colorful style, would hardly pass muster in the 1880s. Molly notes that The Box is “like a 21st century Moulin Rouge, where New York’s aristocrats mingle with its artistic demimonde.”

For all she’s often said to be The Box’s Toulouse Lautrec, her personal style is more akin to Kiki de Montparnasse. She’s a former burlesque performer herself, and used to pose at the Society of Illustrators in New York for their Jazz and Drawing sessions, among other places. She eventually gave up artists’ modeling as it ruined her back, and worse, lacked romanticism. Molly says that many people try life modeling because they assume that the experience will be a little decadent, but more often find that they’re viewed as something akin to a bowl of fruit.

She’s tried to remedy that dreary feeling by founding Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School, where modern day bohemians come together to paint outrageously attired burlesque models while sipping absinthe (and other, more contemporary alcoholic beverages). There are also games and contests to add to the merriment. It all combines to form a tipsy, good natured scene rarely witnessed since the early days of the Moulin Rouge.

Of course, it helps that Molly has seen the Moulin Rouge first hand. At seventeen, she traded her native New York for Paris, where she earned her nom de guerre (she was born Jennifer Caban). The name was awarded to her by a boyfriend who didn’t think she was very sweet. She also honed her art while residing at The Shakespeare and Co. Bookstore where the owner allowed her to live in exchange for a few hours of work in the store. She drank cheap wine and later, ran off to the South of France with a Middle Ages scholar. She also learned to sneak a dozen people into the subway in under 30 seconds flat — though you’ll have to contact her for details on how to manage that.

However, it wasn’t long before she fled France for the exoticism of the Middle East. Once she arrived, Molly promptly ended up doing jail time in a Turkish prison. She had, admittedly, chosen an inopportune time to visit Turkey, which was in the midst of a civil war between the Turks and the Kurds. The government was fearful that Western journalists were coming in and reporting on the matter in a negative light. As a result, the fact that Molly was sketching and chatting with locals was highly suspect. She was quickly escorted off by the police, and spent a several hours sobbing in jail before they released her. “It was a rather surreal experience,” says Molly. “Imagine Turkish army guys with machine guns serving you tea and asking you about miniskirts. They were very polite, but you weren’t allowed to leave.” Still, Molly recalls the rest of the Middle Eastern experience fondly, citing the silver roads and green hills in Turkish Kurdistan, and the labyrinthine medinas of Morocco. She also notes that leaving home and living abroad gave her a sense of independence and cunning that have proven to be invaluable.

Today, her work with Dr. Sketchy’s affords her ample travel time, as branches of the bohemian class have sprung up around the world. Originally based in Brooklyn, you can now visit a Dr. Sketchy’s everywhere from Sydney to Stockholm. “No one ever expects their hobby to take over the world,” she says.

Most recently, Molly returned from a trip across Europe where she had the opportunity to stop at various branches of Dr. Sketchy’s. “My finest moment was speaking (and then posing) for hundreds of Helsinki-ites at Kiasma Museum, the largest contempary art museum in Finland. To think — my baby invading such white-walled splendor!”

All Snow White ever did was clean house and cook for a bunch of short men. Sometimes — especially in the glamorous Molly Crabapple’s case — real life does outdo the fairy tale.