Q&A: Occupy’s ‘Greatest Artist’ Writes Her Memoirs

Photo: Beth Hommel

Molly Crabapple got kicked out of school and learned to draw in Paris. She gave Occupy Wall Street artistic expression with the political paintings in her show “Shell Game” — Matt Taibbi called her “Occupy’s greatest artist” — and she was the third artist to ever visit Guantánamo Bay, where she’ll return at the end of August. Crabapple has also written for Vice about everything from antisocial behavior to her abortion. Now she’s signed a book deal with Harper Collins to write and illustrate a memoir, Drawing Blood, to be published in 2015.

I met Molly in her Manhattan studio, where she lives and works with her partner, Fred, and a tiny elderly black cat named Puddy, whom she’s had since she was 11. Art covers the walls of the apartment (and the window sills and some of the floor), and there are a million tiny distractions — an ornate chandelier, gold-flecked embroidered fabric, a great pair of shoes in the corner. We settled into two upholstered chairs underneath a window lined with painted wine bottles to talk about her book, her politics, and her art. (The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.)

Are there any stories you know for sure are going in the book?
I’ll talk about working at the Box nightclub and how that was my artistic coming-of-age. A lot of it’s about the demimonde as a place of transgression, a place where the classes meet and rub up against each other. I think there’s way more class warfare in a nightclub than anyone gives it credit for.

When I drew at the Box, you had the most brilliant performers in the world onstage. You had Italian acrobats who had trained from the age of 7 who did backflips over chainsaws; you had beautiful trapeze artists; you had singers from New Orleans who sounded like songbirds. You had this sublime talent onstage, but they’re just performing for I-bankers; they’re performing for the world’s most scummy and mediocre, and ultimately they exist in that space to entertain them. One of reasons the Box so obsessed and shaped me is that they encouraged me to play on that irony. I made their symbol into a pig — let me show you this these are the water bottles I did for them. And I would draw the performers towering over them like these golden gods.

Some of your personal pieces at Vice have been my favorites. What is the connection between experience and creation, for you? Is there a particular way in which your past shapes the art that you make now or the topics that you choose to create art about?
I’m someone who has always been very engaged in the real, physical world, whether it was as a topless fire-eater or as someone who was drawing a protest in Spain. For me, the real world is the stuff of creation. I never liked the idea of the artist as this hermetic monk locked up in their studio churning out wallpaper for rich people until they die. I want an artist who is engaged with the world, an artist who knows performers and actors and journalists, an artist who is obsessed with the events of the day, an artist who influences other disciplines. I love how Picasso designed sets for the Ballet Russes. I love how Diego Rivera’s murals are not only in museums but in schools in Mexico. I want art to be a part of the world. I hate the idea of art as something for just academia, just in galleries. I think art is way too important for the ivory tower.

A lot of your art is political, most recently with the Occupy Wall Street influence in “Shell Game.” What draws you to politics? Why bring politics into your art, as opposed to creating something that is solely aesthetically pleasing?
Because politics is the stuff of power and violence and it’s what shapes how people live. I think when people view politics through the narrow lens of Democrat-Republican, it can be pretty thin gruel. But when you’re viewing it as something that shapes love and war, something that shapes childhood and where and how you live, it’s the stuff of life and that’s why I was attracted to it. Occupy Wall Street happened right outside my window and it was just the most vital, pressing thing that was going on. I wasn’t going to draw nothing but pretty girls with Marie Antoinette hair when my friends were getting arrested outside.

In August, you’re headed back to Guantánamo. Can you tell me a little about your plans for that trip?
Now what I’m doing is going down to draw the prisons. And what’s so interesting about Guantánamo is on one hand it’s one of the world’s most notorious prisons, where 166 men are indefinitely detained, 68 are hunger striking, and 44 are being force-fed. But you also have a nice suburban town with a karaoke bar and a McDonald’s. I want my work to explore that tension — of the American smiley face and what lies behind it.

You’re not allowed to draw detainees’ faces or the faces of guards. You’re not allowed to draw the faces of the prisoners and you’re not allowed to speak to them and you only view them through two-way mirrors, so I’m trying to figure out a way to draw censorship, to make it clear when I draw these men that things are being censored in the drawings. Because the censorship at Guantánamo is very intense. Like when I would draw the courtroom, I wasn’t allowed to take my sketchbook out until a court security officer had approved and stickered every single page. Because I can’t draw the faces of guards, I gave them smiley faces.

I sort of hate myself for asking you this question because I feel like every female writer, artist, whatever gets asked it, but I’m curious to hear your answer nonetheless: Do you feel like gender influences your work or your position in the art world?
Gender always influences you, the same way that having legs influences you, or being white or black influences you, or being born in America or Iraq influences you. The circumstances of your life always influence what you do. It’s reductionist to do a super one-to-one thing where you say, “I am a woman, so I do stuff about my uterus.” But who you are does have a real impact on your work. Where me being a woman influenced me was that I was able to concentrate on my work early on with the help of a decently paying, flexible modeling job — that was an option that wouldn’t have been available to most guys. But also I lived my life and did some rather sketchy things with a heightened awareness of danger. Women live with a much more heightened awareness of danger than men do. That sort of danger, then the cultivation of a toughness or a fearlessness in response to that, is very important to what I do.

Is there anything else on tap, other than the memoir and Guantánamo Bay, as if that isn’t enough?
There is. I’m illustrating Matt Taibbi’s new book. It’s going to be brilliant. It’s all about the criminal-justice system and the different ways it deals with rich and poor people, and we’re doing kind of a Hunter S. Thompson–Ralph Steadman collaboration. I’m going to do another “Shell Game”–style gallery show at some point. I want it to be all about hackers and surveillance, because I think that’s where the conflict of the future is between the old world of nation-states and the new world of amorphous digital identities. I’m going down to Bradley Manning’s trial as well. I’m just going down as a supporter, and to draw.

Photo: Courtesy of Molly Crabapple
Photo: Courtesy of Molly Crabapple
Occupy’s ‘Greatest Artist’ Writes Her Memoirs