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Sketchy Thoughts

Molly Crabapple Puts The Fun Back Into Drawing Nude Women--Who Knew It Ever Left?

Emily Flake

By Emily Flake | Posted 3/7/2007

The Dr. Sketchy Anti-Art School

At Atomic Pop March 8

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Art modeling is the least sexy nudity-involving job in the world. It's physically demanding, boring, and takes place in a sterile, studious environment from which any hint of playfulness, let alone sexuality, has been surgically excised.

Enter artist/writer/model Molly Crabapple, nee Jen Caban, founder of Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School. Founded in Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Williamsburg neighborhood in December 2005, Dr. Sketchy's turns the stuffy life-drawing paradigm on its head. The models are burlesque dancers, circus performers, and all-around freaks. The poses involve props and costumes. And the classes are held in bars. Any artists who feel their attention flag during the three-hour drawing marathon will find themselves revivified by the promise of booze or prizes--contests such as "Best Left-Handed Drawing" and "Best Incorporation of a Woodland Animal" keep things moving along. Dr. Sketchy's has tuned into a worldwide franchise, with branches in such far-flung locales as Melbourne and Berlin--and all you need to start your own is a locale, some fun and willing models, and the OK from Crabapple herself.

But if you don't want to go to all the trouble, you can just buy the activity book. Co-authored with friend John Leavitt, Dr. Sketchy's Official Rainy Day Colouring Book was released in December, and features paper dolls, drawing lessons, find-the-hidden-bottle-of-moonshine games, and so much more. "The response has been fantastic," says Crabapple from the road--she's on tour promoting the book with a series of bookstore appearances. "We've gotten a lot of press, and sold through almost half the first run already."

Crabapple's work has a finely wrought yet cartoonish sensibility to it. Obsessively detailed but whimsical in tone and subject, it's as if Benny Hill managed to crash a Victorian tea party--saucy ladies cavorting in various states of corseted undress, mustachioed strongmen hamming it up on carnival midways, a Tony Millionaire-esque monkey wearing a fez. Her client list includes The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and--natch--Playgirl. She has parlayed her Playgirl illustrating gig into a monthly cartoon-column for the magazine, beginning in April, called Rockhard Chazny. "I get to exploit men," she says gleefully.

Crabapple's illustrator mother introduced her to her biggest influences early on. "When I was a kid I made a diorama of Toulouse-Lautrec," she laughs, and the woozy, boozy fun of the master is evident in his acolyte's choice of subjects. "I like to describe my work as R. Crumb without the misogyny," she says, and that feels apt. Crabapple's buxom Good-Time Charlenes are rendered with Crumb-like attention to detail and appreciation for the well-developed hindquarter, but are fun, light, and silly where Crumb's women are often grotesque objects of near-religious awe and obsessive desire. She herself possesses a regal, Old World beauty that makes an interesting contrast with her predilection toward skull barrettes and flouncy black skirts. With ginormous, liquid doe eyes, aquiline nose, and fall of rich dark hair, she looks like a classic Madonna dressed up as a Suicide Girl--a gig she held briefly and not too happily.

She doesn't like to elaborate, but "they're an absolutely scummy corporation," she says. "To be fair, I think their problems are general entertainment industry problems," as opposed to being endemic to the soft-core porn scene. "But I met some really cool girls there."

Crabapple's tenure at the Fashion Institute of Technology was unsatisfying--she left after three years. More instructive was her time spent in Europe. "It changed my life," she says. "It showed me anything was possible." Decamping for France at the age of 17 with $300 in her pocket, she landed at the Left Bank's famous Shakespeare and Co. bookstore, a place full of "professional paupers," artists, and writers who live above it in exchange for their labors in the store. From there she traveled extensively, making her way to Barcelona, Morocco, and Turkey--where she spent a couple hours in police custody (they let her go after she started crying). Back in the States, she started modeling for photographers and art classes, where she developed her distaste for the life-drawing vibe, and dancing burlesque, where she honed her theatrical aesthetic.

A recent Dr. Sketchy's event in Williamsburg saw a crowd of about 25 packed into the cheerily shabby Lucky Cat Lounge. In the absence of the usual mistress, John Leavitt took over hosting duties. "Hi, I'm Molly Crabapple," he cooed from the stage, dressed in thigh-highs and a polka-dotted dress, hair wrapped up in a towel to obviate the need for a wig. The model, a leggy stunner called Aprella, struck a saucy pose. The crowd, after an appreciative hoot, bent their heads to their work. Crabapple replicates the experience with "mini Dr. Sketchy's" on her book-signing tour, which has already stopped by Washington's Palace of Wonders to an enthusiastic audience. It descends upon Baltimore March 8 at Atomic Pop, accompanied by Washington burlesque star Kitty Victorian, who will pose for the crayon-wielding crowd--one of whom could be the founder of a chapter of our very own.

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