Review: Art of Molly Crabapple Volume 1: Week in Hell

By Katie Mehas

At some point in every decent artist’s career, they begin to wonder if they have anything original to say. It’s the paradox of the art world; a mediocre artist can repeat the same tropes and claim brilliance, but any creative worth his or her salt is going to be wracked with fear that they’re just repeating the same old ideas over and over. Leave it to Molly Crabapple – artist, eccentric, marketing genius – to face this crisis and decide to go crazy in a very public way.

Molly Crabapple has never been one to do what was expected of her. An art school dropout, she traveled the world to hone her art, returning to found the international alternative art movement Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School and begin working as a full-time artist. While her artifice-laden, deeply political work is interesting and beautiful on its own, it is perhaps Molly’s instinct for the theatrical that has drawn her such a broad and devoted audience. Far from the stereotype of a reclusive artist, she has crafted a public persona amidst a group of colorful friends and co-conspirators, turning her art projects into “happenings” and opening her work to the public in a way that flies in the face of artistic tradition. In many ways, she is the art as much as the work she is creating. But while she may not balk at promoting her art, talking to her reveals that she is, in fact, deeply humbled by the reaction she’s received. She is a deeply committed entrepreneur and a master of self-promotion, but her hustle lacks the vanity one might expect from someone who has found this level of success at such a young age.

Given this background, it should come as no surprise that Molly Crabapple’s artistic existential crisis/28th birthday celebration would culminate in a five-day creative bacchanal, documented in a live-stream, a frantic, characteristically candid video, and, coming at the end of March, a book: Art of Molly Crabapple Volume 1: Week in Hell.

It is impossible to review the book without first taking a closer look at the project it documents. Faced with an artistic roadblock, Molly made the decision to lock herself in a hotel room, plaster the walls with drawing paper, and not come out until it was covered. This is, again, where the difference between a decent artist and a mediocre one comes into clear focus; surrounded by 270 feet of her artwork, Molly’s biggest fear was being suffocated by her own cliches, forcing her to rethink her inspirations and draw from a deeper well. The sheer endurance of the exercise would be enough to scare off most artists, but adding in a creative imperative is what truly made this a growing experience and not simply an art marathon. She posted the project to Kickstarter, hoping to earn the $4,500 necessary to make it happen. Within two weeks, she had raised $25,000.

While Molly certainly expanded her inspirational base for this project, fans of her work will find the work reasonably familiar. She has not wildly changed her signature style or her densely-narrative panoramas (reminiscent, for me, of a sweetly NSFW version of the fairy tale/Mother Goose murals I grew up with). The book and video make the week look like fun, but it’s clear that this was a serious undertaking, with the final image in the book featuring a somewhat wild-eyed Crabapple holding a section of her completed wall. As she writes in her book, “In the end, the walls broke me. I broke them. Maybe we both came out better for it…” Only time will tell what impact this project will have on her future work, but it is unquestionable that an undertaking of this magnitude will not pass without some effect.

At 48 pages packed with photos and drawings, this may not be the heavy coffee-table art book you were expecting. It does, however, represent something much larger, and does a wonderful job of capturing what one imagines was a frantic, festive, sometimes-desperate week of creation. Readers, like the Kickstarter contributors who made this event happen, can imagine that they were part of this mad artistic happening, a spectator, at least, to the temporary insanity of Molly Crabapple.

Molly was kind enough to take some time out of her packed schedule to answer a few questions for Jack Move. Our interview with her is below.

You didn’t take the traditional “Go to art school, become an artist” path to get here. How do you think your background has influenced the work you’re doing today?

I’ve always been a bit of a stompy anti-authoritarian, and the way I skewered my teachers later became the way I skewered the world. I also credit working as a low-rent naked model with teaching me about artifice, power, and the sordid sides of the most respectable of folks.

You’re probably best known as the founder of Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School. Did you expect it to resonate with so many people around the world?

God no. I honestly always expect my projects to resonate only with me. That’s why my tumblr tagline is “demographic of one.” I always remember my first art show, in a bar, where they didn’t turn on the lights, and no one showed up, and a bit of me expects it to happen every time I do something.

Did your Week in Hell project really start with a dare from Warren Ellis? Has anyone’s mother asked what you would do if Warren Ellis dared you to jump off a bridge?

Ha! The truth is, I often think of all sorts of hare-brained, impractical schemes. And if someone asks me, “are you really going to do that?” then I feel I damn well better. Much of my work comes from a place of “I’ll show you.” If Warren dared me to jump off a bridge, I’d dare him to shave his beard, and then we’d be even.

Were you surprised by the reaction you got from fans on Kickstarter?

God yes. I was a little embarrassed to be putting up such a personal project. I thought people would find it self indulgent, and I was humbled, honored and swept away by the response it got.

Why do you think the idea of this project was so well-received?

I think people liked the idea of getting an affordable original and being part of a frankly mad event.

You refer to your Week in Hell as a “deeply personal artwank” in light of the Occupy Wall Street reporters who took over the space after you left, but many of the themes in these drawings are highly political. What inspired you?

2009-2011 were years of tremendous upheavel. From Arab Spring and Wikileaks to the financial meltdown, things we took for a given were crumbling before our eyes. How could an artist not want to engage with that?

You compare this performance/art piece to David Blaine and Marina Abromovic, both of whom are very visible in the work they create. Do you think it’s possible for an artist to remove herself from the finished product? Or is that even desirable?

Much of art throughout history was created by teams who prized cleaving to an ideal over expressing individuality. This is the plot of my favorite mystery, Orhan Pamuk’s [My Name Is Red]. A miniaturist in Ottoman Turkey is found murdered, with a sketch as the only clue. The crime is solved by figuring out whose personal style the sketch was done in. A difficult feat at a time when artists stamped out their unique styles to try and make the perfect miniature.

Ottoman miniatures, gothic cathedrals, mainstream superhero comics – they’re all lovely. But they’re not what I do. Luckily, no one piece of art is a statement on how all pieces of art should be made. Kant’s categorical imperative doesn’t apply so much to us, thank fucking god.

Did you keep any portion of the walls after this was over?

I have an extra square yard as insurance for when the post office loses things (and god do they lose things, delivery confirmation be damned).

Through websites like Twitter and Kickstarter, it’s much more possible today for creators of all sorts to interact with their fans. How do you see this impacting the overall creative landscape?

I think that they’re allowing independant artists (the kind with neither trust fund nor gallery) to create crazy, impossible, grand scale, glittering things. It’s also democratizing the role of the art patron.

Now that you’re a few months past this experience, how do you see it affecting your ongoing work? Did it have the effect you’d expected?

Week in Hell was like a bootcamp in The ArtsMakings. I’d draw every waking hour, then fall asleep, staring at my drawings, looking for every sign of laziness and suck. It gave me this impetus to work till I broke, refined my style, made me try new things.

What’s next for you?

I’ll be starting a series of 9 giant paintings about the political and economic upheavals of the last few years, called Shell Game. I have two more art books coming out with IDW, and First Second is publishing Straw House, a graphic novel by me and John Leavitt about a magic carnival.


Art of Molly Crabapple Volume 1: Week in Hell can be ordered here. For more of Molly Crabapple, visit her website or follow her on Twitter: @mollycrabapple.

Katie Mehas is a writer, editor, and left-brain artist (rarely spotted in the wild). She’s worked in magazine publishing and radio, had an R-rating slapped on her senior thesis art show, and was once laid off from her job via Facebook while on her honeymoon in Croatia. She and her husband live in Florida with their hermaphroditic chihuahua and three cats. Follow Katie on Twitter (@KTMehas) and find out more here.

Leave a Reply