“Ooh, what is that in the style of? Picasso or The Smurfs?”
“Looks like this was drawn by someone with the mental age of four – appropriately, you win a lollipop.”
“What’s this? A reindeer eating an elephant eating a gorilla… Oh no, it’s a hat vomiting animals. Marvelous!”
Welcome to the wonderful world of Dr Sketchy’s Anti-Art School which brings together the joys of dames, drinking and drawing. Billed as ‘the world’s premier alternative drawing movement’, it originated in New York in 2005 and now has branches in over 100 cities across five continents, from Belfast to Belo Horizonte, Santiago to Saskatoon, Auckland to Zagreb.
Tonight, on a drizzly Spring evening, I’ve come to the Vauxhall Tavern for the latest London event (London is one of 18 Dr Sketchy’s branches in Great Britain and Ireland). Eighty-odd people have rocked up to partake in a mash-up of burlesque performance, comedy, copious imbibing and artistic endeavour. While more serious sketchers have come armed with their own pads, pencils, pens, charcoal and even paints, complimentary art materials are available on the door for those less prepared. No erasers though, for reasons that soon become clear.
Purists might grizzle at the lack of easels or drawing boards (plays havoc with your proportions, darling… ) in favour of standard bar-room tables, but as our compere for the evening, the cabaret singer-comedian, Dusty Limits, explains for the benefit of Sketchy virgins, this is not intended to be your normal life-drawing class:
“Lovely squiggle, sir… You can feel the sexual frustration.”
“Here at Dr Sketchy’s in London, we’re more about the drinking than the drawing — think of it as art karaoke.”
“Hands up if you think you are shit at drawing?” he continues.
A few hands go up.
“Who told you? No-one is shit at drawing. And there is no such thing as a mistake at Dr Sketchy’s. That’s why we don’t allow rubbers here.”
He says he shall be awarding prizes of sweets throughout the evening and pledges that novices will have much chance to win treats as the more talented artists in attendance.
“Sometimes we are infiltrated by actual professionals,” he spits, with faux contempt. “But we reward effort rather than ability here. We give prizes because we feel sorry for you… or possibly because we want to f*** you.”
The first task of the night is a one-minute ‘blind contour drawing’ of Mr Limits himself, to be drawn without looking at your paper. Afterwards, people hold up their efforts and Limits sashays around dispensing candy and friendly barbs – “Ooh, you’ve drawn eyes and everything…” “Look someone’s drawn a cock and balls… “
The next one-minute exercise involves simply randomly scribbling all over a page. “Lovely squiggle, sir… You can feel the sexual frustration.”
Miss Trixie Tassels arrives on stage in a silver dressing gown, but that is soon artfully removed as she performs a striptease to appreciative whooping from the crowd.
To the relief of that chap, it’s time for Limits to introduce the first of tonight’s two burlesque performers/models. Miss Trixie Tassels arrives on stage in a silver dressing gown, but that is soon artfully removed as she performs a striptease to appreciative whooping from the crowd.
Once Trixie is down to her tassels and the music stops, Clare Marie, the indefatigable ‘headmistress’ of Dr Sketchy’s London, is on hand to scoop up the discarded bra and stockings. By day, Clare and business partner Chocolat The Extraordinaire, who will be doing her first burlesque performance for three years later tonight run the Sugarlesque boutique on Carnaby Street. Chocolat founded the London branch of Dr Sketchy’s in 2007, with Clare Marie taking up the reins in 2009. Previously, they worked together for vintage-inspired lingerie store, What Katie Did, frequented by cabaret and burlesque performers who became friends, so finding models for Dr Sketchy’s has never been a problem.
“It’s a hobby, but it’s basically taken over my life” Clare tells me. To underline the point, it’s her birthday tonight and she’s on duty. “We’re averaging three events per month. And we’re doing Dr Sketchy’s at Hampton Court Palace and Bestival this year.”
Judging by tonight’s turnout, the concept has broad appeal to everyone from art students and professionals to families, couples and groups of friends seeking a different kind of night out. Clare Marie tells me it has become a popular alternative activity for stag or hen parties too.
A DJ spins the tunes in the background as Miss Tassels’ does a series of short poses varying from two to ten minutes, punctuated by Dusty Limits’ witty verdicts on the artwork. “I’m running out of sweets… I’m like a paedophile at Christmas” he wails, his effort-over-skill-prize-giving policy proving hard to maintain.
“The more you drink, the better you get!” trills Limits gleefully
Sure, the sterile calm of a life drawing class might be a better place for an aspiring amateur artist to hone technique, but Dr Sketchy’s certainly encourages greater flights of the imagination. For her last pose before the interval, the challenge to draw Trixie Tassels, a New Zealander, as a character from Lord of the Rings yields surreal results, including Tassels’ head impaled on a stick held by Shaun the Sheep.
“The more you drink, the better you get!” trills Limits gleefully before calling time for a break and the chance to buy some more drinks.
The first-ever Dr Sketchy’s event took place in dive bar ‘The Lucky Cat’ in Brooklyn, New York back six years ago. The concept was the brainchild of a 22-year-old art school dropout by the name of Molly Crabapple. Since then, as well as overseeing the global expansion of Dr Sketchy’s, her own hyper-detailed illustrations have appeared everywhere from Marvel Comics to the Wall Street Journal, she’s created graphic novels, and made public-speaking appearances at such esteemed institutions as the Museum of Modern Art. As the New York Times put it, ‘Molly Crabapple is a downtown phenomenom.’
I catch her for a phone chat a couple of weeks after my Sketchy’s experience. Just in time, too, because to celebrate her 28th birthday, Molly was was about to lock herself inside a rented room for five days, cover the walls with paper and fill every inch of that paper with art. As you do. “I might go insane, it might be awesome”, she proclaimed. (At the time of writing, three days into her ‘Week in Hell’, 358 people have pledged $12,717 to watch the internet livestream and discover whether awesomeness or insanity prevails).
So why combine cabaret and life drawing, Miss Crabapple?
"I think it appealed to artists to get to a work in an atmosphere that was convivial, fun, a bit boozy and hang out with really glamorous, inspiring people.”
“Well, I love underground performers. A lot of them model for life drawing too, and I thought what a lost resource. We take them and have them sit there naked, bored with no make-up. Why don’t we bring their act in, their personas.
“When we did the first event, I totally expected it to be a failure, but lots of people came. In New York, there was nothing like it. I think it appealed to artists to get to a work in an atmosphere that was convivial, fun, a bit boozy and hang out with really glamorous, inspiring people.”
Publicising the new event on lifejournal.com generated interest around America, Crabapple wrote a little guide to bringing Dr Sketchy to your town and within weeks there were other licensed branches. Via word of mouth and social media, it wasn’t long before the brand had gone international. Today, the only territories that remain unconquered are Africa and Antartica. “I always thought the scientists in Antartica would be so bored that we could send them over a package of pasties [Note to men: that’s pasties as in nipple tassels, not Cornish] and see what happened,” muses Molly.
Looking at images from recent events around the world on the Dr Sketchy website, it is striking how diverse they are, from a Mad Men-themed event in Phiadelphia to girls dressed as flowers in the Philippines and elaborately-costumed frauleins and herrs wearing pig masks in Berlin.
“One of the things I think that is important for Sketchy is that I didn’t want the branches to be cookie cutters,” explains Molly. “I thought it would be ridiculous to insist something in small-town Brazil shoud look exactly like the New York burlseque scene. So my guideline was that you should draw from the performance subculture of your area, whatever that might be.”
We’ve done flashmobbing. I’ll announce on Twitter the exact location and we’ll have the model turn up in costume and people start drawing her.
Molly tells me she has been surprised how welcoming the art establishment has been to the movement: “We’ve done stuff at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. We even got flown out to Finland to do an event at the major modern art museum in Helsinki.”
However, Dr Sketchy’s underground ethic remains important.
“I’m a bit of a troublemaker, I have to admit,” says Molly. “For instance, we’ve done flashmobbing. I’ll announce on Twitter the exact location and we’ll have the model turn up in costume and people start drawing her. We did that in Times Square with the model dressed up as the burlesque version of a pigeon. It suddenly started pouring with rain so we were holding umbrellas over her while dozens of people huddled under umbrellas trying to draw her.”
So how much is Dr Sketchy about art and how much is it about having fun, Miss C?
“I think it can be either or both depending on what the attendee wants to get out of it,” she replies. “Obviously, it’s very different for a professional artist to someone who’s never drawn before. But for me personally, it’s a lot more fun than life drawing, because I love the visual stimulation of the costumes. It’s almost like a tableau vivant – the models are acting out scenes, and emotions and telling little stories with their poses so for me that’s much more intriguing than seeing a naked dude sitting down staring at his bits.”
Belatedly, Chocolat makes her entrance ‘clothed’ predominantly in glitter-filled balloons which she proceeds to pop one-by-one with a lighted cigarette
Back to the action at the Vauxhall Tavern, and with glasses recharged, the merry band of somewhat pissed artists are ready for more sketching. A technical problem with the music delays Chocolat’s comeback burlesque performance, so in the meantime Miss Tassels returns to the stage. This time, sketchers are instructed to swap drawings with the person next to them halfway through the pose to finish off (“And what’s this? You drew a Spitfire. He drew a vagina.”).
Belatedly, Chocolat makes her entrance ‘clothed’ predominantly in glitter-filled balloons which she proceeds to pop one-by-one with a lighted cigarette, pausing to strike a match on her slip to burst the last two covering her chest. It’s a crowd-pleaser before the second round of poses.
And with the assembled ‘artists’ now fairly well-oiled, the drawings become less and less about what they are seeing than a window into the dark recesses of their minds.
“Picture Chocolat enjoying herself at Glastonbury,” implores Dusty Limits. This brief realises an exceptional array of works, including Rolf Harris with a wobble board and Big Bird having sex with Chocolat.
The ‘Surprise Monkey Round’ requires the sketchers to convincingly incorporate a monkey into their sketch. With a minute to go, Limits announces: “Your surprise monkey is a marmoset.” This proves too tricky for many lacking the requisite monkey knowledge whose efforts range from a chicken to a jar of Marmite.
To round off the evening, everyone is invited to bring their best drawing to the stage to be judged. Entries earning runners-up prizes include a multi-legged penis that talks, a giant marmoset eating a woman (bearing the caption: ‘STOP ME BEFORE I KILL AGAIN’) and a zombie sheep (“chosen by Trixie who’s feeling nostalgic for home”). The overall winner – who has drawn Chocolat floating under her massive hot-air balloon breasts – is chosen on the grounds that her artwork “bears no resemblance to what she was asked to draw except that she’s included a marmoset.”
And that, folks, is what Dr Sketchy’s Anti-Art School is all about.
Click here for more information on Dr Sketchy’s Anti-Art School
Click here for information about Dr Sketchy’s London branch events