Moulin Rouge in the Face 

Illustratrix Molly Crabapple is making sex silly, and the silly sexy.

click to enlarge art09_lede_molly_headshot_200.jpg

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec toddled happily around that late-19th-century Paris of Bohemian excess, dancing girls, and a dose of syphilis with every shot of absinthe. The little guy created images in paintings and posters that became icons of A Time That Was Really Great, But That You Just Missed.

As Toulouse-Lautrec probably was no great dancer, he experienced most of the action offstage. But for young illustratrix Molly Crabapple, part of the swelling burlesque underworld in New York City, ideas come from experiences on both sides of the easel.

Crabapple, the alter ego of one Jen Caban, 23, a proud art-school dropout from the Fashion Institute of Technology, has done her time in photographers' clutches and in drafty artists' studios, making ends meet as a model and Pretty Face of the Burlesque Revolution. She was a Suicide Girl when she was 19, a model for the popular naked-girl Web site, www.suicidegirls.com, that glorifies tattoos, piercings and a general nonmainstream lifestyle (and which has been criticized in recent years for alleged mismanagement of the models. Crabapple has nothing nice to say about it).

All the while she's doodled away, honing a style of illustration that celebrates bosoms, corsets and the occasional monkey. It got her drawing gigs at those three great bastions of journalism: The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal and Playgirl.

"I've always preferred being the objectifier rather than the objectified," she declares from her New York lair. "I find illustrating far more freeing than modeling."

Crabapple talks very fast -- a New York girl -- but indulges in words as over a tray of sushi, so when she says "actually," six or seven hidden syllables are revealed. It's a sign of a certain kind of energy that propelled her across the world for a year when she was 17, drawing relentlessly, picking up languages. The kind of energy that inspired her to start a school.

Perhaps still shuddering over the chilliness of the model's stool, Crabapple and fellow illustrator A.V. Phibes created "Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School" in Brooklyn in late 2005. The pair offered up pretty ladies, handsome lads and the occasional human oddity to an eager and growing community of artists-without-models. They also made it a point to pay the models well, a personal belief of Crabapple's.

Perhaps because sexy mixed with a dollop of silly is a universal recipe, Dr. Sketchy's has taken off, with branches in 20 locations around the world, from Edinburgh to San Francisco, with new franchises recently opened in Helsinki, Rome, Sydney and Boston. So if you're ever in Finland with a spare crayon and a libido …

The work has resulted in a book, "Dr. Sketchy's Official Rainy Day Colouring Book," a sardonic and garter-belted volume of paper dolls, coloring-book activities, true and fabricated histories, and a guide to sketching beautiful women.

"It's sort of 'Where's Waldo?' for perverts," she says, "or R. Crumb without the misogyny." Whatever it is, it means the bright-eyed Crabapple has to bottle that absinthine energy and hit the road again for a book tour. Which means Richmond, soon enough, will bear witness to its own mini-Dr. Sketchy's class. Which means a Richmonder with a crayon and a dream will get the chance to scribble Mimi Noir (of local troupe Nouvelle Burlesque) and perhaps win prizes. Or at least get the creative juices stirred. Some kind of juices anyway.

Then Crabapple will pack up all her pencils and perversions, her sex and syllables, and hit the road again, spreading the good word of Times That Are Really Great and thinking about how the world should be.

"I wish I could draw more naked gentlemen," she sighs, "but they're just not profitable." S

Molly Crabapple brings "Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School" to Chop Suey Books March 2, 6-8 p.m. Free. 497-4705.

Visit Molly Crabapple's website.

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