Dr Sketchy’s Anti Art School
This article is from 2008.
As Dr Sketchy’s Anti Art School celebrates its first birthday party at the Arches, Rosalie Doubal talks to creator Molly Crabapple and enjoys her first cheeky taste of the international burlesque life drawing phenomenon
I blame after-school ‘buff club’ for the prudish apprehension I felt on entering Dr Sketchy’s Anti Art School. The life drawing class of my youth utterly succeeded in repressing my schoolgirl giggle. Week after week the models’ towelling gowns would fall open to reveal assorted floppy appendages, nipples of varying shapes and sizes and bristly pubic hair. Armed only with a sheet of sugar paper and a stick of charcoal, my experience of life drawing was hardly uplifting or titillating.
Following my visit to Dr Sketchy’s, which aims to counter the sterility of the traditional life class with the provision of gin, music, dance and – thank heavens! – tiny pieces of bejewelled clothing, my inner prude and I have now made our peace.
The models at Dr Sketchy’s are burlesque starlets, contortionists, vaudeville jugglers and tattooed beefcakes. Snappy poses, accompanied by live music, are interspersed with performances and competitions. Born in 2005 of an artist’s fantasy of Bohemian excess, Dr Sketchy’s has grown from an unassuming infancy in the achingly cool New York district of Williamsburg to become an international phenomenon, spawning branches in over 50 cities around the world, a book, calendar, jewellery – even an Edinburgh Fringe show.
‘We get everyone from art students to professional illustrators to cubicle-slaves who need their creativity stoked,’ says artist, illustrator and founder of the Sketchy’s franchise, Molly Crabapple. ‘For experienced artists, we offer a life-drawing session unlike any other. For someone just getting into art, we’re a supportive, non-threatening environment.’
Comfortable with drawing myself, yet desperate to test the limits of this supposedly ‘non-threatening environment’, I decided to take my friend, a primary school teacher and art novice, to a class at Glasgow’s Arches. After all, everyone knows that teachers can only draw bubble-head people with stick legs, right?
Following a brief introduction from hostess Lucille Burns we set about sketching. While drawing our first model, the heavily pregnant nautical nymphette Petit Chou Chou, my friend concentrated on getting the model’s sailor hat just right. It was the bump, however, that proved the richest source of creativity for the rest of the class.
The weird and wonderful mix of students, professionals, obliging partners and recovering prudes like me rabidly rubbed, smudged, scratched and etched at rolling sheets of paper. An ‘imagine the birth’ competition spawned a cracking selection of drawings featuring an assortment of mostly nautical-themed objects slipping out from between Petit Chou Chou’s legs. The ‘Anchor Baby’ drawing won first prize, with the wild card ‘Jesus’ drawing coming in a close second.
By far the most interesting aspect of the whole experience was not the beautiful models, but the fact that the audience just wanted to draw and draw and draw. Clearly, there is something inspirational about burlesque. It is certainly back in fashion. Across the water, and on these shores, Dita Von Teese has been pushing the neo-burlesque cause almost as hard as her M.A.C make-up campaign. Meanwhile, at a more local level, Club Noir and Vegas!, which regularly feature glamorous, cheeky performances of a burlesque nature, continue to reign supreme over the central belt’s clubbing scene. Crabapple suggests that this revival is inspired by the powerful nostalgia for old-fashioned forms of entertainment. ‘I grew up with a major Toulouse-Lautrec fantasy, and saw the burlesque revival as the resurrection of those Parisian can-can halls he sketched in,’ she says.
Historically, American burlesque has taken a real kicking. The fact that the form was sidelined by the invention of the television set, and completely outlawed in New York in 1939 only served to fuel its rebellious, underworld image. Accordingly, new burlesque is often viewed as a means of escape from the desensitised Hollywood gloss which saturates the American media. This echos the very origins of burlesque itself, which was partly conceived as a reaction to Victorian prudishness.
‘The Victorian era was a constrained, ruthless, socially stratified time that was nonetheless often unintentionally hilarious,’ says Crabapple. ‘I fell in love with the maximalist aesthetic, and I found the Victorian demimonde increasingly reflected in the brutal rat fight of New York.’
Crabapple’s cheeky illustrations are set in Victorian England and Rococo France, periods in which people strived to make their entire lives as artificial as a dancer’s face. Full of bawdy humour, sex and dirty jokes, Crabapple’s works hang in the Coney Island Museum and the Museum of American Illustration.
‘When I first started living on my own in New York, I was a broke, 18-year-old art student,’ she says. ‘So I did what many an ambitious young trollop does, and started working in the naked girl industry.’
She continues: ‘Every aspect of this exchange is fake. You paint on fake facial features. You adopt a fake name and a fake demeanour and make fake expressions and leave with photos of an utterly false moment. I’m not knocking it – art is at its bottom fakery, which is why so many religions distrust it. But, while sprawled across strangers’ desks, I got to thinking about this pile-up of artifice that me and my friends engaged in. And I became deeply inspired by it.’
The patrons of the Glasgow class I attended drew similar inspiration from the performers. Glasgow’s Dr Sketchy’s, the largest existing offshoot, marks a year of success this month, with a grand old party. Queen Bee Crabapple will perform alongside some of the UK’s finest burlesque acts as well as San Franciscan cabaret sensation Kitten on the Keys.
Rufus T Fahrenheit, artistic director of Rhymes with Purple, the theatre company behind Glasgow’s Sketchy’s outlet, reflects upon the successful integration of this East Coast of America phenomenon into West Coast life. ‘Glaswegians love things that are new, exciting and interesting and they jump right on things that are arty. Also, Glasgow has a history of music hall and vaudeville; we’re the place that created Harry Lauder and Stanley Baxter and I think people love that sense of cabaret.’
Glasgow’s Dr Sketchy’s organisers have tapped into an artistic minefield here and their patrons are thriving. For me it was a cathartic experience. I confronted the pasty, naked ghosts of my past and came away smiling, while my companion raised her game from line drawings to shading and the class demonstrated a level of creativity and individuality unrivalled by any other Sunday afternoon gathering.
Dr Sketchy’s, Arches, Glasgow, Sun 10 Aug, 4pm–7pm. The Birthday Party, follows from 7.30pm till midnight.