Drawing Blood by Molly Crabapple, review by Bruce Jacobs
If anyone has visually captured New York City's post-9/11 zeitgeist, it is artist, illustrator, ex-Suicide Girl, burlesque queen and political activist Molly Crabapple (née Jennifer Caban, which she legally changed to the nickname inspired by her "sour disposition"). Drawing Blood is packed with enough energy and edge to make Patti Smith's Just Kids seem like a field trip to Disneyland.
Raised in Far Rockaway in Queens, N.Y., by her artist mother, Crabapple committed to art at age four, accepting that it "was neither exotic nor unattainable... as prosaic in its way as fixing cars." Bored in school at age 12, she consoled herself with punk rock; she recalls how she "stalked through school hallways, a brat in shredded black.... I pierced my ears with safety pins.... I worshipped Kurt Cobain." At 17, she was already on her way to Paris, alone, to find her idol Toulouse Lautrec's Moulin Rouge. Broke and vulnerable, she found company and a place to flop at the famous Shakespeare & Company bookstore--a place with "all the dark romance of Miss Havisham's wedding dress... as perfect as a stage set, dirt and all."
Splurging on a leather sketchbook, she drew everything she saw--becoming "nothing but an eye, soaking up the world." When she returned to New York in August of 2001, she had a portfolio of work and a calling. A month later the city she left was no longer the city she knew. Sharing a "junior one-bedroom" dump in Alphabet City in the East Village, she was an artist without an audience and without a penny.
Drawing Blood is the story of how Crabapple survived poverty and insecurity to become a successful artist and illustrator, with work in MOMA's collection, contributions to the New York Times and Paris Review, an editorship at Vice and several published books, including The Art of Molly Crabapple, Vols. I and II. She posed for art students at $10 an hour with "all the fascination of sitting on a cross-country bus ride with no book." She lounged provocatively for sleazy amateur photographers. She posted nude photos on the semi-pornographic Suicide Girls website. She joined burlesque troupes. She introduced bands at CBGB's. She wiggled her way into the notorious downtown club the Box, which became "My muse. My Moulin Rouge." And through the hustling and degradation, she kept drawing--including up-close scenes of the Occupy Movement in Zuccotti Park and, with increasing political activism, visits to Guantanamo Bay and Abu Dhabi labor camps.
Candid, earthy, romantic, funny, omnivorous, Drawing Blood is the story of a young artist on the make in a New York City where the headbands and Lennon wire-rim glasses of a generation ago have been replaced by infinity scarves and Warby-Parkers. Illustrated with many of Crabapple's drawings, Drawing Blood is a portrait of a tough woman winning (finally) in a tough profession in the toughest of cities.
Bruce Jacbos's review first appeared in Shelf Awareness.