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Molly Crabapple's DIY Empire: A How To

I asked Molly, who is the chicest community organizer since Obama, to explain how she grew her drawing salon into a franchised phenomenon.
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Over four years ago, Molly Crabapple dropped out of New York's Fashion Institute of Technology to become a full time artist. This meant modeling for a hundred dollars here and there, often nude, to raise enough money to print and mail postcards of her illustrations to the New York Times, in the hopes of being published. A regular 9-5 day job was out of the question. It threatened the time she would need to launch herself as a Toulouse Lautrec of New York, a dream she carried since roughing it in Paris, after high school, as a tenant and cashier of the Shakespeare & Co. bookstore, a modern day Delphi for big dreamers.

While still in art school, she put on her first major show, in a downtown bar, and no one came. "I started to cry," she says, describing the traumatic incident. "That's what fueled my workaholism. If you don't have that aggression, seriously, nothing will happen. You'll be sitting in the dark, alone in a bar, waiting for people to come in."

The lesson paid off. The New York City born and based illustrator is the founder of Dr. Sketchy's Anti Art School, a twice a month drawing salon that organically spread to over 100 cities around the world. At these events, burlesque dancers, drag queens, and fetish models pose and perform for an audience of sketch-pad ready artists, often in tribute to a work of literature or a glamorous and fearless woman of history.

"I had this Cleopatra obsession as a kid," she says. "Everything she did, I did. I would try to memorize hieroglyphics and draw them. I had this Cleopatra wig I made out of yarn." She adds, "I tried to convince my mother to call me Divinity. She still mocks me to this day, 'Yes, Divinity.'"

A recent Dr. Sketchy's met in Greenwood Cemetery in Brooklyn, at the grave of Lola Montez, the courtesan of the wild west who inspired the song Whatever Lola Wants, Lola Gets. Artists sat in the grass, sketching Jo Boobs, headmistress of the New York School of Burlesque, posed as a dreamy Lola, in a corseted black lace dress. This is the kind of romantic nostalgia that fuels Molly's career decisions: she fulfilled her dream and became the in-house Lautrec for the Box, New York's vaudeville-style night club, sketching the x-rated cabaret madness like her hero used to do in fin de siècle Paris.

On Saturday June 12 she will be hosting the Art Monkey's Ball in Brooklyn, a fete inspired by, according to the Facebook page, "a riotous, costumed end-of-the-semester celebration" by Parisian art students in the 1920s. And you can catch her hyper-Victorian illustrations on a new t-shirt line sold at Atrium in New York and Fred Segal in Los Angeles as well as The Puppet Makers, a new web series for DC Comics she produced with illustrator John Leavitt, an organizer and co-MC of Dr. Sketchy's.

Since Molly couldn't make it to the DIY Days conference in New York last March, where she was to give a TED-style talk titled, DIY EMPIRE: "how a little art class took over the world," I asked for her main points. The intersection of community and business is something we need to focus on, especially in light of BP's total disregard for the communities it's currently destroying. I asked Molly, who is the chicest community organizer since Obama, to explain how she grew her drawing salon into a franchised phenomenon:

  • 1. "To create a movement you have to give people ownership over what they're creating." Dr. Sketchy's went global when an artist in Melbourne, Australia asked if she could recreate the event there. That first jump took it around the world to today include Helsinki, Tokyo, Wichita, Bogota, and over a hundred cities. The anti-authority Molly is hands off of chapter leaders, except to supply encouragement and advice, in exchange for a small start-up fee and monthly dues.

  • 2. "You should also ask your fans to play with your stuff. I give my fans tons of ownership of my work and Dr. Sketchy's and it's really paid off." She recruits helpers from her fanbase, including her assistant Melissa "who can do the job of 20 suits," like bookkeeping to making a huge paper cake for a burlesque dancer to jump out of.
  • 3. "Since there is no burlesque scene in South America and other places, I widened the model description to include underground performers. It was much more about the spirit of things than feather boas."
  • 4. "In franchising, don't be uniform or cookie cutter." Respect regional differences and self-expression across the board.
  • Final piece of advice: "Your network is the most important asset you have. I'm kind of a shy person. If I was doing something just for fun it would be having brunch with an old friend and talking about politics."
  • Given that she's Toulouse Lautrec obsessed, would she ever consider moving back to Paris?

    "New York is home. To produce an exhibit or host a show, even in a bar in Paris, the amount of paperwork is horrifying."