Crow quill pen and bible black ink

Martin McClellan

December 07, 2015

I've always wondered how art collectors decide which artists to collect — not the profit driven monsters who play galleries like traders play the markets, but true fans who love art and emerging artists, who show up early and often, and buy many pieces by new talent. But it dawned me while I read Molly Crabapple's memoir Drawing Blood: they learn the artist's story. When you learn someone's story, you forge an empathetic lock with them. You learn them, and if you are a curious person, you want to know more. A painting hanging on your wall represents aesthetic and craft appreciation, but more than that, it represents the story of the artist, and the story of the collector who met the artist and had some kind of relationship with them.

The story is everything.

That thought kept circling me, like tweety birds around a cartoon head after getting clocked with a frying pan, while I read. Drawing Blood is the story of an artist being built from nothing more than scrappy desire and dedication. It's the story of honing craft over a lifetime, so that like getting dressed early in the day, when opportunity presents a door you are ready to walk through it. Sometimes, it is a story of picking the lock on that door. Sometimes it is the story of opening the door and walking through only to find no ground on the other side, and a perilous fall into a world unknown.

At the XOXO Festival in Portland in 2013, Crabapple gave a fascinating, if somewhat disjointed, talk. She spoke to the power of bypassing old structures and going direct to your own customers. “Self-promotion has always been cheaper than an MFA," she said. She stood on the stage, hand on cocked hip, a wry smile on her face as she let the read pages of her talk flitter to the ground when she was done with them. She stood in front of a single slide, not allowing the graphics to speak for her. She wanted our attention on her, and her words. She wanted focus, and no distraction.

The morning after XOXO ended, I was having breakfast in Kenny & Zuke's with a group of friends from the festival when I saw her waiting for a table. I approached and asked if she was going to publish her talk in text form.

"If somebody pays me to," she said with a smile. It reminded me of one line from her talk: “I was always a hustler. And in the network society, hustlers win.”

Since she was alone, I invited her to join our table, and she accepted. I regret to report that I was not a very good host. We chatted a bit, but it was awkward and I was with my young kid who required attention. Those little birds circling my heads were all cawing "you didn't hear her story! You didn't listen!"

But here, with her book, Crabapple has extended paginated avatars, like crows holding jewels in their black little bills, that will enter your home and whisper her secrets (or, at least, some of them) into your ear.

It's a story of scraping the underside of culture to find rich veins of influence. This has gained her comparisons to Bukowski or Patti Smith, although I think these are poor comparisons.

Her unique cultural recipe is more one a dash of Karen Finley, two parts Frida Kahlo, a pinch of Lydia Lunch, and two infused tablespoons of Barbara Kruger filtered through an Edward Gorey book; fold into a previously prepared melange of Gypsee Rose Lee, Bunny Yeager & Ralph Steadman. Bake in your designer Kiki de Montparnasse oven until risen. Consume with whiskey and tobacco.

It’s the story of being a courtroom witness to both the excesses of Wall Street at peak bubble, and the United States Government at peak arrogance, and of turning that witness into testimony, and sometimes that testimony into action.

This beautiful book, generously graced with so many illustrations that they printed every page CMYK, is artfully designed and fun to browse for the images alone. Here, my one frustration with the production: Some of Crabapple's work is ridiculously detailed, and holding the book close to see the line work frustratingly exposes only the line-screen dots; this is a book about art, but it is not a fine art book.

But Crabapple's tight, vibrant, jabbing prose, and prescient asides are the reason to buy this work. Her narrative is well-crafted, expertly told, and completely compelling. Like, this, from the introduction:

It’s a strange kind of disassociation, to stare into another’s eyes only to make those eyes into shapes on paper. To draw is to objectify, to go momentarily to a place where aesthetics mean more than morality.

See?

Crabapple brings a message that will resonate with many young women seeking identity in a cultural landscape of confusion. It is, in one sense, driven by self-awareness, appreciation of the theater of gender, and a realization that we have to rely on ourselves before anybody else. It is unafraid of sexuality, but understands how sexuality is used as a weapon by those with any power. It is fiercely independent — and completely, uncompromisingly feminist. But though she bootstrapped so much of what she does, she is no libertarian on Randian. Crabapple recognizes the world around her that allowed her to become what she has, and even more so, she pays great ode to the people who helped form her.

She reinforces this message in one particularly lovely way: by giving chapters to the women (and sometimes men) who became her friends and confidants. Crabapple never credits herself with her role in her friend's lives, but always credits their role in hers. She never shirks from the unpleasant side of relationships that go sour when closeness turns to itchy wriggling for freedom, but she gamely — perhaps humbly — presents herself as a blank canvas that others draw on. Then, of course, she takes that influence and makes her own art from it. She says of one friend: "We admired each other so much that — as if to avoid being entirely swept up into each — we started to let a bit of poison creep into our friendship."

Through her telling of those relationships ("To make someone love you, see them as the person they want to be"), you can see how hard it must be to be friends with someone so driven, who will always put her art above any other relationship — as many male artists are lauded for. Her friend John, at one point, says to her: “You have really got to stop resenting people who aren’t as productive as you.”

But educating yourself as an artist is a full-time career. Crabapple is dedicated above all to her craft.

Drawing crumpled cloth is an old and demanding exercise, once ubiquitous in French ateliers. When you draw cloth, your mind has no preconceptions to fall back on, as it does when you draw a dog or a strawberry. Each fold must be observed, measured, and then rendered fresh. This teaches you how to look at the rest of the world.

Working as an artist's (and erotic) model allowed her to view the process from both sides.

Posing one night at the Society of Illustrators, I grew frustrated that my name wasn’t even on the flyer advertising the event. Many artists there told me I was their favorite person to draw, but on the flyer I was merely an anonymous “female model” — a gender and a body, interchangeable with any other. That interchangeability gnawed away at me whenever I posed.

And experiencing epiphanies about the purpose of art in our contemporary setting after finding a book about the political side of Toulouse-Lautrec:

The book showed me another way. Art and action could infuse each other. A painting didn’t have to hang in a gallery, dead as a pinned butterfly. It could exist in spaces Where people cared, as a mural, a stage set, a protest placard. Art could be gorgeous, engaged and political, working defiant magic on the world.

Crabapple's autobiographical arc may have paled if it didn't end where it does: with a dawning awareness of the world, and an activist's drive to call out inhumanity wherever possible. Influenced by the Occupy and worldwide Spring movements, the artist transubstantiates into journalist, and Crabapple becomes more than a passive witness. She becomes a chronicler, and reporter. The leftist clichés, here, ring full: she speaks truth to power, and gives voice to the powerless.

She hinted at her interest in this direction quite young, after meeting a photojournalist while traveling in remote Turkey:

War journalists are some of the last macho archetypes we can lust after without ambivalence. They chronicle violence without being violent themselves. Victor hadn’t covered wars, but he had traveled to dangerous places, and in that Hasankeyf afternoon, I adored him and was jealous of him all at once. A photojournalist could see the world, meet all the people, and witness everything I clumsily tried to capture in my sketchbook.

With her vivid prose, she exposes very human stories, bringing a face to large-text headlines of the other, which major news organizations so rarely report on. If you've read her reporting in Vice, you know how brave and present she can be. She even once, before his presidential bid, put it to Donald Trump at an event in Dubai: “'Mr. Trump,' I ask, 'the workers who build your villas make less than $200 a month. Are you satisfied?'" He didn't answer.

The story is everything.

That thought, again. It's so apt here, both for Crabapple telling her own story, and for the people she chronicles. It's a rare thing indeed to finish a memoir, and feel that both you have learned the person writing it, and still want to know more. It's even more rare to feel like the subject is being captured just as they have truly found their voice, and are young enough that their entire career is laid in front of them.

Because now that we are caught up, we get to watch the next years of her story be written. Watch for those little birds. They always have the most interesting tales. With this illustrated writing and storytelling, I think she's found her medium. I'm glad now that I was terrible at gleaning her story that one time I met her. Turns out, it was much more satisfying to read it, just as she wanted it to be heard.

Books in this review:
  • Drawing Blood
    by Molly Crabapple
    Harper
    November 30, 2015
    352 pages
    Provided by publisher
    Buy on IndieBound

About the writer

Martin is a co-founder of The Seattle Review of Books. He's a novelist (his first, California Four O'Clock, was published in 2015 by a successful Kickstarter campaign). He designs websites, apps, and other things for a living.

Follow Martin McClellan on Twitter: @hellbox

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