Molly Crabapple (née Jennifer Caban) grew up in Far Rockaway with a mother who was an illustrator and then attended Manhattan’s Fashion Institute of Technology with the intention of becoming an artist. It took years, but she succeeded enough to support a full-time assistant and pick and choose her projects. She talked about the balance between art and trade, the unfortunate reality of needing to make money, and why Michelangelo was doing PR for mass murderers.
How does your income break down between painting, illustrations, writing, and other means?
I make most of my living as an artist. That money comes in a variety of ways. Sometimes I sell original paintings. I also illustrate books (like Matt Taibbi’s The Divide), magazines, animations, do murals, and have an online print store for people who don’t want to take up their walls with giant paintings. I’m a columnist for Vice, but have also written for Vanity Fair, the New York Times, the Guardian, the Daily Beast, and others.
Is the original artwork the single biggest segment with the other work filling in the gaps?
I have such respect for everyone who makes their full income as a freelance writer. I personally couldn't do it. It seems incredibly hard and precarious. Often the biggest outlets pay the least. I built a career for 10 years as an artist before I started writing. I feel really lucky that I have that as a support, and also that I’m able to do work that integrates art and writing.
"We live in a brutal, cutthroat country. Money, unfortunately, determines so much of one’s health, safety, freedom. I think it's important to acknowledge the realities of our lives."
There's a feeling that creative fields and making money are somehow contradictory. Yet youhave written very honestly about the need to combine the two. How focused on making a living were you when you first started out?
I was fucking desperate to make a living. I live in New York! It’s expensive here, and I didn’t want to keep living in apartments with rats.
One thing that shaped how I viewed art was that my mother was an illustrator. She’d go into an office and design packaging for the Cabbage Patch Kids or Holly Hobby, and then come home and do freelance work all night. She did illustration as her trade. Because of her example, I never saw art as an airy, impossible thing. My mom made her living and put food on the table drawing pictures. For me to ask if I could make money off of art would have been silly. Drawing was something adults did to feed themselves and pay their rent.
Have you run into negativity because you're so honest about the trade side of your career?
I have since I was in my early 20s.
I've noticed that the people who obfuscate the most about the financial realities of art have another form of income that they don't want to talk about. They have a spouse who is making a lot of money or they come from a wealthy family. That's why they are able to disregard financial reality. They don't have the same pressures that other people do.
Or maybe they just come from an awesome European country that has an actual safety net for citizens and provides government funding for the arts. I wish our country was like that. I wish there were grants for artists. I wish we lived in a country that had a universal basic income, or even just where everyone was insured, so that risking dying of untreated illnesses wasn’t the cost of pursuing your dreams outside of a day job.
But we don't. We live in a brutal, cutthroat country. Money, unfortunately, determines so much of one’s health, safety, freedom. I think it's important to acknowledge the realities of our lives.
Do you worry about money now?
I make a great income for an artist right now. I also have a full-time assistant who gets benefits. So I do think a lot about making payroll.
I had a few moments where I felt like I turned the corner. My mom, despite being an amazingly talented illustrator, was never what one would call “well off.” When I was 25 or 26, I made more money than my mom. That was like, "Holy fuck, I made more money than this adult who I admire so much." That was a bit of a head-shift for me.
When I started working with the Box (sister nightclubs in London and Manhattan) and first got paid $6,000 a job, that was a big shift. But even when I dropped out of school at 20, I was trolling Craigslist for jobs. I found a listing for Playgirl. They were paying $800 for porn illustrations. I felt like I made it. I was getting paid $800 to paint naked dudes for Playgirl.
Have your standards for what you want to get paid gone up as you've progressed?
Definitely, but that's also a function of being more in demand. At this point, I get more requests to do work than I could ever fulfill. I have to sort through them somehow. I allocate a certain amount of time to focus on work that's really meaningful, but that might not pay a lot. But for other, more trade-like stuff, I go with the people who pay the most (as long as they’re also in line with my beliefs).
You've gotten a few projects funded using Kickstarter. Do you like that method? Would you use it again?
Kickstarter is only for one-off specific projects. I would use it again.
But a word of warning. When you use Kickstarter, you're turning yourself into a shipping fulfillment company. You have to send out hundreds or thousands of rewards. You're committing yourself to three months of looking at postal tracking numbers, wondering why your package didn't get shipped to Australia, and having people scream at you because you ruined Valentine's Day by not getting them their DVD on time. It's a lot of standing in line at the post office and getting familiar with packing crates.
It's fine; there's nothing wrong with that, but if there are other ways that I can get the funding I need to make the art I want, I prefer to do those.
You walk a line between talking very honestly about making a good living and reporting on/doing art about inequality and the underclass. Is there a tension there?
In some ways yes, and in some ways no. Artists historically have been Faberge egg makers. We have been court entertainment. Even the Marxist painter Diego Rivera worked for robber barons—because robber barons had the funding and owned the walls. Doing art or writing is a constant tension, especially since there are very few clean funding sources. This is a negotiation everyone makes when they work under capitalism. But artists are especially susceptible to it.
There is the tradition of patrons.
There is. Look at Michelangelo. He did paintings to glorify the Catholic Church, or the Medicis. His paintings were incomparable. They were also PR for mass murderers.
How Do You Make a Living? is an ongoing Q&A series.