KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
For Molly Crabapple, drawing and painting is a tool for action. She's illustrated court proceedings at Guantanamo and documented the war in Syria with pen and paper. Her work has been featured in Vanity Fair and the New York Times, and she is a columnist for Vice. Her new memoir, "Drawing Blood," describes growing up in New York City and getting kicked out of seventh grade and how she worked her way through art school as a naked girl for hire, as she puts it, answering ads to pose in hotel rooms and for art classes.
MOLLY CRABAPPLE: I think that if you really want to know your field, you have to work both sides. You have to know the side that isn't presumed to have a voice even though, of course, everyone in the world comes equipped with a voice.
MCEVERS: Crabapple's career as a political artist took off at a place called The Box in 2007. It's an exclusive night club and performance space in New York City with bawdy shows. She describes it as a place of class warfare. She drew burlesque performers who entertained wealthy bankers. Her work got more political when the Occupy Wall Street movement started right outside her apartment.
CRABAPPLE: I had been going to protests for a long time. My dad is a professor, and he's Marxist. But for a long time, I felt like going to protests was the same as - you know when people go to church, but they don't really believe in God?
CRABAPPLE: But they think, oh, better to hedge my bets. Like...
MCEVERS: (Laughter) Just in case.
CRABAPPLE: Yeah, like, I don't necessarily think this is actually going to do any good, but I really ought to do it anyway.
MCEVERS: (Unintelligible). Yeah, right.
CRABAPPLE: It's the right thing to do. And I went to the first day of Occupy. And then I went away for a few days. And when I came back, it had formed into a mini city with, like, a kitchen and a library and a place that gave out free clothing. And they had, like, veterinarians. And the infrastructure of it was amazing. And that was the first thing that hit me.
And then the second thing was, this is for everyone. And it was the first time where I felt like it was the political space that I could stand in. And so I made a lot of posters. I drew a lot of portraits of people there. I went to many, many marches. But in that time, it felt like something was fundamentally shifting in the world.
MCEVERS: And then it wasn't just those protests that interested you.
CRABAPPLE: No. It was 2011.
MCEVERS: Right. There was a lot of protests going on.
CRABAPPLE: Well, the world is being swept by this wave of networked protests everywhere from Tunisia to Greece to Spain. And it felt like all the old borders and boundaries were dying and, like, everything would change.
MCEVERS: You know, it was around this time that you changed the way you did your work. For Occupy, like you said, you did posters and signs, but you later went to Greece to cover protests there. And there, you were documenting what you were seeing. You were a journalist.
CRABAPPLE: Greece was this mixture of, like, documenting everything that was in front of me - like, drawing from life, drawing from photos. And it was like trying to seize the most succinct and important visual metaphors that I saw in front of me.
MCEVERS: Later, you started working with activists in Syria. You actually went into Syria at one point. But some of the work you did in Vanity Fair magazine was based on photographs.
CRABAPPLE: Yeah. I worked with a young Syrian writer. He goes by the name of Marwan Hisham.
MCEVERS: Said he would send you photographs from places that are basically controlled by ISIS, places like Raqqah, Syria, Mosul, Iraq.
MCEVERS: And you would draw from those photographs.
CRABAPPLE: Exactly, exactly. And it was a way both of getting around, you know, ISIS's censorship of that. But also, I wanted to do something that got beyond the numbness that a lot of people feel with imagery coming out of the Syrian war. And where I used all of my skill and all of my own craft as an artist - to show that these things are really, really important.
MCEVERS: How are illustrations of these things different than photographs? Why do they affect us in a different way?
CRABAPPLE: There's a few reasons. The first is that even though real photojournalism and, you know, real photography is an insanely demanding craft, a lot of people think that they know what it's like to take photos because we all have cell phone cameras. And we're used to them. There's a certain jadedness with them, whereas art is a far rarer thing that, you know, just takes a really long time to do. I mean, it might take me eight or 10 hours to do a single image.
CRABAPPLE: But then there's that lavishing of care that I think hits people. And then there's also the emphasis on certain things. Like, I - when I do my work, one of the things that I - for me is very important is - I think it's very important to respect the dignity of the people that I'm drawing even if they've just gone through the most horrific thing possible.
MCEVERS: How do you do that?
CRABAPPLE: Oh, God. It's hard to...
CRABAPPLE: It's hard to summarize it with words. You know, it's a lot of visual choices.
MCEVERS: Yeah. Well, let me say this. Like, when I look at some of those pictures, it seems that the people's faces are done in so much detail, where some of other details fade away, as if the camera were to have the ability to have acute focus on every single face maybe that's in the picture, and some of the other things aren't so much in focus. Is that an OK characterization?
CRABAPPLE: That is an OK characterization. And also, I think one of the problems that Americans often have when we're thinking about the Middle East is that Americans often only see images of the Middle East that come from war.
CRABAPPLE: So a lot of Americans might not realize that are - there are actually, you know, hundreds of thousands of people living in Raqqah (laughter) just like normal people.
CRABAPPLE: Bit if you take that awareness away, then it becomes very easy just to say, oh, bomb them all.
MCEVERS: Right. Everybody's - you're all fighting with each other - sorry.
CRABAPPLE: Exactly. It's very easy...
MCEVERS: What's to be done?
CRABAPPLE: Yeah. It's very easy to dehumanize people.
MCEVERS: When you were young, you were diagnosed with something called oppositional defiant disorder, and...
CRABAPPLE: I was, indeed.
MCEVERS: And you were actually suspended from seventh grade. Now that you've gone on to, you know, publish a book and report from all over the world, what do you think of such characterizations, you know, of yourself and of young kids?
CRABAPPLE: I think that school just isn't for everyone. A lot of people don't learn well when they're - have to sit in a place for eight hours. A lot of people learn best lying in their own bed, teaching themselves from books. And I was a bad student. I was a brat. If I was a teacher, I would not have liked myself. But this hammering kids to fit into this system - it's horrific. It leads to a lot of kids being either medicalized or criminalized. And I think the message I would have to kids is just, like, survive it, and then once you're out of childhood, I mean, you're just so much freer.
MCEVERS: Molly Crabapple's new illustrated memoir is called "Drawing Blood," and it is out now. Thank you so much for your time.
CRABAPPLE: Thank you so much for having me.
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