book review: Drawing Blood

drawing blood

Drawing Blood by Molly Crabapple. Harper| December 2015| 352 pages | $29.99| ISBN: 978-0-06-232364-4

RATING: *****/5*

“I wanted to meld my two communities: professionally-gazed-at girls like Stoya, and professionally-listened-to journalists like Laurie [Penny] and Tash [Natasha Lennard]. The world tells women they must choose between intellect and glamour, but I saw no such distinction.”

What a difficult review for me to write. It’s such a beautiful book. Gorgeous drawings. An intriguing, meaningful progression. I’d like to say just read it already.

Feminist and activist Molly Crabapple details her journey from burlesque dancer to artist who sketches conflicts and society’s woes with fervent energy in this compelling memoir. Born in New York, Molly has lived there her entire life. She now travels extensively to worn-torn and hot-zone countries in order to document the travesties so the rest of the world can see and feel what she witnessed through her writing and drawings. She’s an artist and a journalist these days but it wasn’t a simple road.

“Artists are the fanciest of the fancy. We’re presumed to exist in a rarified space requiring silence and deep thought. Because of this, the world often ignores the physical reality of what we do in favor of the ideas that animate it. The work of artists often involves skilled and demanding manual labor. Yet we’re often treated more like sophisticated pets than like true workers.”

Molly stripped and worked as a burlesque dancer. She searched Craigslist for illustrator gigs. Working as an artist and performer allowed Molly an entrée into a world she’d never envisioned she’d be in. She schmoozed and mingled with the wealthy and the corrupt. She delves deep into the underground art community filled with weirdos and creatives, the working poor. It’s all sex, drugs and art. She first works art for desire then for money and then for a purpose. She writes: “Once I was out in the world, the art that so horrified my teachers would become my way of gaining the attention of politicians, criminals, nightclub barons, and porn stars. It slipped me past doors marked “No Admittance,” past velvet ropes to rooms where dancers glittered, their lips the purest red.”

Before college, Molly heads to Paris and lives at Shakespeare and Company for a time. “Dirt coated every surface at Shakespeare and Company. It was brown, fragrant, a mixture of mold, cooking oil, and the dust of decaying books. Sometimes if I slept on a top bunk, cockroaches feel on my face. In the upstairs kitchen, the mold-furred refrigerator was stuffed with rotten soup. For Sunday tea parties, George baked pancakes with rancid flour. Ants drowned in the tea. Yet all that decay only made the store more lovely; the place had all the dark romance of Miss Havisham’s wedding dress.” One book Molly read –Explosive Acts: Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde, Felix Feneon, and the Art of Anarchy of the Fin de Siecle– greatly influenced her future. “Though I was the daughter of an artist and a Marxist, I’d always feared that politics had to be grim and art had to be frivolous. The book showed me another way. Art and action could infuse each other.”

I’ve always appreciated art but never have been a part of the art world. Music sure. I do have a wonderful artist friend Cynthia von Buhler [also a musician/ former band manager etc.] who threw the best parties and dubbed her house filled with antiques and thrift store finds and mirrors and velvet “Castle von Buhler.” Turns out that Cynthia hired Molly for one of her first gigs. Molly writes: “the artist Cynthia von Buhler hired me to pose as a human statue at a loft party. I painted myself white like Venus, with my breasts out and my hips draped in a white sheet. After a night drinking absinthe with Manhattan’s moneyed bohemia, I took home two hundred and fifty dollars in tips, and swore off honest employment forever.” [note: Cynthia told me at the time of this party she herself was broke. As I said she’s super creative and knows how to inventively throw a party. She and Molly remain friends. I’m sure because they’re both scrappy and driven by art.]

“Despite our ambitions, we had almost no entrée to the New York art scene. There, art was a hobby for trust-fund kids. The road to getting a gallery started with an MFA from a prestigious school—preferably Yale—which would cost you around fifty thousand dollars. Tack on a staggering sum for studio space. In New York, money was the silent grist for the creation of art.”

After leaving college, Molly continues to scrape away painting murals in nightclubs and posing nude. She also begins to evaluate what’s important to her. Burnt out at 22, she starts a “live-drawing workshop where models would be muses” called Dr. Sketchy. It became extremely popular and now runs in other states and countries [not by Molly but by others using the same format.] She spent time at Occupy Wallstreet, sketching people and talking to people and hanging out. From there she starts writing for various publications and finds herself at Syrian refugee camps and Gitmo. Finally art and politics merge for Molly Crabapple.

You can be a feminist and pose nude, work as a stripper or escort, or do burlesque. It’s about maintaining control over your body and your image. Molly comprehends this better than many. She worked for the well-known web site Suicide Girls until it imploded. She explains: “When I thought of every proposition or threat that I got just walking down the street in my girl body, I decided I might as well get paid for the trouble.” It’s standing strong, owning one’s sexually and using it as one wants. That’s all about feminism as much as women’s reproductive issues and fair pay. After an abortion Molly writes: “Lying in bed, I promised myself two things: I would do my best to help anyone as powerless as I was at that moment. And I would never be that powerless again.”

The memoir maintains a perfect tone. Molly assumes nothing. She’s not arrogant or condescending but genuine and earnest. She describes events just enough to remind us of what happened and provides us with insight from her perspective. Just what a memoirist should do. These pages burst with stunning moments, pure honesty, inspiration, scrappiness, art and politics. Just read it already! It’s truly perfect and riveting.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for review from Harper Collins.

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