From Burlesque Dancer to Activist Illustrator: In Conversation with Molly Crabapple

It's a case of art imitating life for this boundary-traversing political artist.


Molly Crabapple has always been a classic nonconformist: expelled from school in grade seven, she went on to chase the bohemian dream in Paris at 17 before returning to her native New York to work as a burlesque dancer and nude art model.

But having grown up watching her mother, an illustrator, sustain a career in drawing, it was perhaps inevitable that Molly (aka Jennifer Caban) would also end up pursuing the same path.

“It was really a great advantage to me,” she tells Collective Hub. “Because so many people feel that art or illustration is something very unapproachable to them, it’s something you can’t make a living on, [whereas] I saw my mum put food on the table by being a working illustrator, and so for me it was always a totally practical career path to choose.”

As resident artist at iconic, exclusive New York nightclub The Box, Molly, who spoke at this year’s Festival of Dangerous Ideas at the Sydney Opera House, largely set her political leanings aside to spend four years sketching burlesque dancers, trapeze artists and acrobats as they performed for crowds of cashed-up bankers.

Then, she found herself living near the city’s financial district just as Occupy Wall Street started to take hold. Initially, though, Molly felt underqualifed and unauthorised to get involved.

“I was always a political person,’ she says. “But for a long time, because I worked so much in nightlife and because I did all these pictures, in effect, of girls with their tops off, I thought that my work wasn’t compatible with work that was journalistic or reported on politics and conflict.”

Eventually, after spending enough time amongst the protestors, Molly was emboldened in 2011 to bring her political beliefs into her artistic practices.

“I felt like it was kind of incumbent on me to take sides and I thought that actually, I didn’t deserve to just stand there,’ she explains. “Occupy was so special because everyone was involved if they wanted to be, so I started doing some pictures. And then I got a call to work at Vice [Media] in 2012.”


The Vice gig was the beginning of an entirely new direction for her work.

“I covered Gaza, Syria, a lot of New York policing stuff, I did a major investigative piece on solitary confinement last year. My first big story was Guantanamo Bay – I knew a journalist that was going, so I applied for security clearance. And then that piece was shortlisted for a Flatline award. It was a six thousand word essay with a lot of drawings and filling in sketchbooks there.”

Had she not pushed against the perception of herself as working around the periphery of serious, legitimate art, Molly knows she would never have achieved most of her professional triumphs.

“I think one of the things that I had to get over was, because I was in sex work when I was younger, I had almost bought into the idea that if a woman does have a sense of glamour about her, you’re fundamentally an idiot,” she says. “You can never be taken seriously, and everything you do is forever dismissed and cheapened.”

And having seen men switch up their career direction with relative ease, Molly says there’s a distinct double standard at play.

“There are no fundamental reasons, for instance, that a man can be a journalist writing about sport and then segue into writing about politics, but a woman can’t be an artist who did stuff about sexual perversions or strippers and then segue into writing about politics,” she points out.

“Things that are seen as ‘women things’ are seen essentially as less serious and more frivolous than things that are seen as masculine. I actually just really reject the boxes that society wants to hammer people into in general.

“I think it’s utterly antithetical to the richness of what being a human is.”

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