Working with the hidden, forgotton and unseen: Molly Crabapple

Molly Crabapple got caught on our radar with a few tweets from a refugee camp in Antakya , where she was recently working on a mural on the walls of the camp’s school, a project that is realized by Save the Children.  Recently opened her latest solo exhibition,“Annonated Muses”, in New York City, Crabapple was kind enough to answer a few questions from Bant Mag.

Interview by Ekin Sanaç, Yetkin Nural 


You have a statement about the ”sketchpad being a lock pick into life”, opening various doors, which would otherwise be closed, doors such as a night club that wouldn’t let you in, a closed group locals in any of the places you travel to, so on and so forth. I can imagine that your sketchpad have always been and will always be your skeleton key. But when we think of the work you have been doing; traveling to troubled and conflicted places of the global world and documenting the darkness in those corners… Can we also say that you have also been using the same sketchpad not necessarily only to gain access but to provide access to the social, economic or cultural reality (through documentation)? What are your thoughts about this two-sided access function of the sketchpad?

Drawing is often collaborative in a way that photography is not. For me to draw someone, they often have to stay still, to consent. They can see what I’m doing.  They can mock it if its bad.  Drawing gave me permission to look, in a world where, by virtue of living in a female body, I’m more often seen as the object than the subject.  But it does something else too.  Drawing is laborious, slow and individual. You do it with your hands.  When you draw something, the labor you put in shows, along with the skill and care. It’s a way of saying to other people, “hey, I spent a lot of time looking at this. You should too.”  When you’re drawing subjects that are marginalized, or even hidden, this is a sort of superpower.

“If you want to do work about politics, do your research first, and then engage with issues that you care about (not merely trendy causes of the moment dear god.  I see you, white cube gallery artists), in the spirit of humility, curiosity and passion. Show it to people who are genuinely affected by the issue, as their honest opinion, listen if they call bullshit, and keep working.  Do the truest work you can.”

 You are one of the founding members of the Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School which employs a unique combination of burlesque and life-drawing class. Since its birth in a Brooklyn dive-bar in 2005, Dr. Sketchy’s has become a chain with over-hundred licensed members around the world. Can you tell us about the inspirations and discontents that led to the formulation of Dr. Sketchy’s? 

 I worked during college as an artists model. It was the most impossibly boring job on earth- standing still in painful contortions while staring at walls, to demonstrate your anonymous anatomy. Because America has a deep discomfort with nudity, in many schools, students were not even allowed to speak directly to me. They had to speak to the teacher, who would then order me to do what they wanted.  At the same time, so many brilliant, flamboyant, crystal spangled performers I knew worked as artists models. All that talent, which they were forbidden by the medium from showing.  All these things to say – but as models, they were forbidden from talking back. Inspired by Kiki de Montparnasse and other legendary models of 1920’s Paris, I wanted to create a deeply theatrical and accepted space where artists and performers could come together, and where models were celebrated as muses who talked back… 

Occupy Wall Street signifies a shift in your work, an engagement with politics through your art which has not been there before. In a Village Voice interview you have said that ‘”Before Occupy I felt like using my art for activist causes was exploitive of activist causes”. What would be your words of encouragement for the artists out there in different corners of the world who -for some reason or another- are shying away, feeling discouraged or blocked off from tapping into politic expression through their art?

 Oh god- we have only this one life, and so I believe that we ought to use our abilities, our interests and our talents to their rawest limits. If you want to do work about politics, do your research first, and then engage with issues that you care about (not merely trendy causes of the moment dear god.  I see you, white cube gallery artists), in the spirit of humility, curiosity and passion. Show it to people who are genuinely affected by the issue, as their honest opinion, listen if they call bullshit, and keep working.  Do the truest work you can.


Your famous May Day poster for Occupy protests pays homage to the London Matchgirls Strike of 1888 (young women and teenage girls working at the matchbox factory rising for equal rights which actually makes a huge mark on the beginnings of labor movement and unionization). This poster – along with other Occupy art – is acquired by MOMA to function as documented history for future and it points to another time in history some decades ago, which is fascinating. How much do you think history factors into your work? As a journalist and artist working with oral history practice, what methods of research do you find inspiring?

 I’m essentially a bookish nerd and I always have been. I get obsessive about whatever I’m reading, in a way that is less a practice than an obnoxious compulsion that makes my friends not want to hang out with me. I read everything, listen to all the music, learn who the players are, look at the art, because I can’t stop myself.  It tends to be a sort of leaping from one thing to another. I taught myself Arabic over the last few years but there’s still so much I don’t know about culture and literature. I might read a story by the surrealist, blackly witty Syrian short story writer Zakaria Tamar, that shows secret police arresting Tariq bin Ziyad, the conqueror of Andalusia. I’ll read about Tariq bin Ziyad, about his quotes, find a poem about him, then a song, then about that singer. Its all compulsive and unorganized and addictive but its how I am. And then this binge of curiosity will give me new ideas.

“On one hand, its cool to do something not a lot of other people do, but on the other, there’s not such a defined role for someone like me in the world of journalism. I’m always the weirdo who people are like ‘what the hell are you doing.'”

In your own history, what specific works do you consider a breakthrough in terms of finding your tools, styles, angles and means of expression?

My first Shell Game piece, to be sure – the six foot tall painting Great American Bubble Machine. A series of sixty six portraits of friends I did in 2010 that taught me how to draw faces. My collaborations with Syrian journalist Marwan Hisham for Vanity Fair, which made my lines raw and emotional in a way I had never previously felt the freedom to do. My current show, Annotated Muses, which is teaching me to paint, properly, not merely draw with acrylics.

You produce work as an artist, a journalist, an educator, an activist and an author. If you were to talk about an inner map of your creative psyche, branching out into these various outlets, how does it all line up? Is it all a chaotic and organic mess or do you have a more disciplined and regulated process? 

I tend to just see myself as an artist and writer, with the other things just genres I occasionally work in. I have a rather Byzantine way of doing to-do lists.  They’re all in a notebook, massive sprawling one year plans, daily to-do lists, lists of books to read, things to learn, to translate, to watch, to visit.  I wake up every morning, drink several cups of black coffee, and tackle the beast.


“Brothers Of The Gun” book, your collaborative work with Syrian journalist Marwan Hisham, is coming out on One World imprint. The kind of work you put out immediately brings to mind the question of drawing versus writing or taking pictures in terms of war correspondence and journalism. Can you elaborate on how the process of drawing is different than writing or taking pictures, especially in terms of the psychology of its creator?

There are very few people who do what I do.  Immortal Joe Sacco, of course, but also Susie Cagle, a friend of mine and astounding journalist/artist chronicling Silicon Valley and how its transforming our future.  On one hand, its cool to do something not a lot of other people do, but on the other, there’s not such a defined role for someone like me in the world of journalism. I’m always the weirdo who people are like “what the hell are you doing.”

For my first three collaborations with Marwan, I was drew scenes Western journalists didn’t have access too, either because they were in Daesh-occupied territories, or because they were in rebel held Aleppo in 2015, after most people thought the kidnapping risk was unacceptably high.  Marwan took most of the reference photos surreptitiously and at great risk.  I wanted to give those images the same beauty, impact and craft they would have had if a photojournalist was allowed to take them.  InBrothers of the Gun, we’re telling the story of the Syrian war, and there’s a very real element of using art to snatch back memories from oblivion.  This, photography can never do.


Very recently you have been working on a mural on a center for refugee youth in Antakya, Turkey as a project of Save the Children. You have also been traveling to Near East, Syrian border and South East Turkey both as a journalist and an artist to explore the Kurdish struggle and movement. What were some of the events that initiated your interest in this area and its problems? And how did these travels and explorations effected your art, if they ever did? 

I first visited Turkey when I was 18, in 2002.  I saw a picture of Isak Pasa Saray in an art book, and with the rashness perhaps only a teenager can work up, I fell in love. I didn’t care it was on the Iranian border.  I ended up spending three months in Turkey, much of it wandering alone around the East. It was an experience for which I was profoundly grateful. I started covering Syrian refugee issues in 2013, first in makeshift camps in Lebanon, and later visiting Iraqi Kurdistan and Reyhanli, and, just over the border, Azaz and the Bab al Salam camp in Syria.  For the last three years, I’ve done murals at schools for Syrian kids in Turkey.  My interest started out of admiration for the early Syrian revolution, and as this war has dragged on, day by horrific day, I became convinced it was perhaps the great moral stain of our generation.  I know that doing work about Syria has given me, as it has many people, a blacker vision of the future.  In terms of my art … those three months, in Turkey, when I was eighteen, filling a fat sketchbook compulsively—that was the basis of the sharp, fast, apt style I learned to use doing illustrated journalism in the field.

We found out that you had a little adventure with the Turkish police near Syrian border. If you don’t think it will get you in trouble again, can you share the story? 

This is an embarrassing story of American naiveté and cultural crossed wires.  During that summer in 2002 I told you about, I was in Urfa, wandering around in the spacey way that was my wont. I had convinced myself I “spoke Turkish” cause I spent a few months with a grammar book, but in actuality I just knew enough to sound crazy and get myself in trouble.  So, American teenage girl in 2002 Urfa, is picked up by jandarma confused as to her presence in the area.  I got taken to the station and asked some flirtatious questions over tea that I didn’t understand and didn’t know enough Turkish to answer.  Not knowing what the hell was going on, I burst into tears, and the somewhat shamefaced jandarma deposited me back at whatever flophouse I was staying at, where the guy at the desk laughed heartily at my expense.  

We know women are distinctively affected by wars in so many ways. We know the world stood there and watched the Yazidi women’s mass abduction and enslavement by ISIS. As an artist/journalist working in territories of war, where do you see hope in the emancipation of women?

Oh god – I feel as if women in the region could speak so much better about this than me, and I fear sticking my foot in my mouth.   There are so many brilliant, courageous, women of iron living, working, fighting in the region. Not just YPG fighters, or the female rebel snipers one sometimes sees profiled in Aleppo. But mothers keeping their kids fed in grim refugee camps, journalists like Zeina Erhaim, who would not leave Aleppo despite barrel bombs, or activists  Razan Zeitounah who were kidnapped or tortured or killed because of their commitment to truth.


Violence is a part of almost every woman’s daily life. In what ways do you see the discrimination and violence against sex workers and “professional naked women” is different, in terms of how society at large perceives or discusses it?

One of the lies most societies tell women is if they are “good” they will be safe from rape.  “Good” is expressed in terms of restriction.  It might mean not drinking, not going out, not dating, not wearing what they like, not being queer, not having sex, not working a job.  Not not not.  The flip side of this equation is that it makes certain women, especially sex workers, but more generally anyone who is “bad” an acceptable target for violence.  Violence against sex workers is rarely taken seriously in America, and in many other countries, and this is because it serves a disciplinary function for patriarchy.  It is seen as somehow deserved by women “beyond the pale.”  This is why respecting, listening to, and standing in solidarity with sex workers is an essential any feminism worth its salt. 

Your “Annotated Muses” show is opening at Postmasters Gallery on September 10. The brilliant idea behind the series has let the women you drew annotate on their own portraits (from the finished work you published on your website we are assuming the series focuses on inspiring women portraits). Within the frame of the idea that created Annotated Muses, what was the initiative talk you gave to women on what to annotate on their portrayals?

I told them to do whatever they wanted. Write. Draw. Quote philosophy in four languages. Scribble out parts they thought sucked. Anything.  I gave them brushes and paints, and if they wanted, some technical guidance on how to use them, but mostly I assured them that anything they painted was right, because it came from their heads and hands.