In the back room at 111 Minna Gallery vintage glam-era Bowie pumped through the speakers into the dimly lit room. The bar had been doing brisk business. All eyes were on the stage where burlesque dancers Miss Honey Penny and Kitty von Quim were strutting their stuff, lip-synching and stripping down to metallic hot pants and pasties. When the number concluded with a final hip thrust and sultry gaze and the applause died down, Penny and Kitty quietly returned to a perch on a black leather ottoman, and art class resumed.
Welcome to Tuesday evening at Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School.
If you've ever suffered through a traditional life drawing class – with a cold, awkward, uncomfortable looking naked person in the middle of the room in a weird pose – you may have asked yourself the same question that occurred to Molly Crabapple in 2005: Why can't drawing naked people be sexy?
Molly launched Dr. Sketchy's in New York in 2005 after doing her time both in front of the sketch pad and behind it. As an artist's model, she felt underpaid, overexposed, and underappreciated. As an artist, she wondered why life drawing classes had to be so boring. Finally, as a burlesque performer and appreciator she realized the solution. She booked an evening at a local bar, recruited models from the ranks of burlesque troupes, and advertised the classes on local illustration-related message boards.
I met Molly in March at the SXSW interactive conference where she gave an awesome talk on the intersections of subculture, art, and business – which is what her naughty little sketch class has become. Enthusiasm for booze, boobs, and art has helped her launch 120 branches. San Francisco has hosted monthly classes since 2006.
On the evening in question, I parked semi-legally on Mission and raced over to 111 Minna to help with the setup. I wanted to get a lay of the land before the class got going. It has been a long time since my last art class, and I found myself nervous at the idea of other people seeing what I was drawing. I presumed booze, applied early and often, might help with that, if not with the drawing itself.
The evening's theme was “A Burlesque Tribute to David Bowie," which promised a good soundtrack if nothing else. Inside, I met up with "headmistress" Alice Stribling and three more helper monkeys (official title, with badge) like me. Alice is a fine artist, specializing in pinup portraits and uses her evenings at Dr. Sketchy's as practice sessions. I had volunteered to help out and work the door.
An event in the main room at 111 Minna left us bereft of folding chairs, so there was not much set up to do. More time for drinking and admiring the crazy getups the models had brought with them for the evening.
The crowd began to filter in. There were lots of local art students toting oversized sketch pads and messenger bags full of art supplies, with nightlife types here for the bar, and Bowie fans here for the music. Everyone brought a sketch pad, though, and before long the crowd had assembled into something that closely resembled an art class with easels out, pens ready.
Finally, the models took to the stage in full 1970s Bowie-as-Ziggy-Stardust regalia – sparkles, eye socket lightning bolts and all – and struck a pose.
The schedule for the evening follows the traditional rhythms of a life drawing class: Starting with several two-minute poses, then moving on to five- and 10-minute poses, and ending with the endurance session, 20-minute poses. Our evening would be a little different, in that between the 10- and 20-minute sessions, there would be a burlesque striptease.
The models (who are Bowie aficionados and often perform their Bowie tribute burlesque) consulted album covers and picture books of Bowie's glam days in search of authentic, and often strange, poses.
Reluctantly I pulled out my sketchbook, which now seemed absolutely tiny compared to most in the class. Amateur. I settled in and tried to remember what I had learned in previous art classes: Find the contours, look for light and shadow, follow curves. Two minutes fly by in an instant, and I was nowhere near done. I fared a little better on the next two sketches time-wise, but they may be the least flattering I've ever created. Time for another drink.
On the way back from the bar I looked around the class to get a sense of what materials and techniques most of the students were using. I was impressed by how many committed to bold lines with pens right from the start. On the far right of the room, a man was creating quite elegant charcoal sketches in record time, probably knocking out a couple in each five-minute sitting.
I caught my first glimpse of iPads in action as two of the students got to work on them to create impromptu digital paintings. It was almost more fun to watch the crowd hard at work, see the varying styles and skill levels, and see the very different results of many people looking at the same thing.
As the models took a short break for a costume change and the students made for the bar, Alice announced the evening's competition drawing challenges: Draw Bowie with lovely wife Iman in a spaceship or draw Bowie with a muppet (also in a spaceship). Quite a challenge.
We all were quieter in the last portion of the class, awed perhaps by the gender-bending striptease interlude. We moved on to the longer poses, and, appropriately warmed to the task, I created a sketch montage masterpiece of breasts and sparkly hot pants within the limited constraints of my pages.
Around me various doodlers industriously worked toward their space oddity masterpieces. By the end of the class I started to feel more comfortable with the process, and it was less stressful having more time to work through a pose (or time to ditch one gone astray and start anew).
After the final pose, we all gathered at the stage for the judging of the contest entries, with an art book prize awarded to the winning artist. I took a last peek at the art on display, made some mental notes for next time, and told Alice she could count on seeing me soon, with a bigger sketch pad.
Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School hosts monthly classes in San Francisco. The next event is on June 15th at 111 Minna, featuring the Fishnet Follies Burlesque Revue. For more info and their online calendar, visit: http://drsketchyssf.blogspot.com