There’s no hard data, but chances are this is the first time in history that somebody was nearly consumed by a fireball during a life-drawing class.
“It burned, but it was worth it,” says Vancouver artist Alison Lilly, rubbing a black streak of soot across her forehead. “It tasted like whiskey. Right in my eye.”
Lilly and some 24 others are at the Wallflower Modern Diner on Main Street, for the first anniversary of Dr. Sketchy’s Anti-Art School—a monthly art class where beer, fun, and a little eroticism trump the traditional life-study scenario. Local burlesque queen Melody Mangler is our model for the three-hour event, and the near-conflagration occurs at the halfway point, when she emerges from the bathroom clad in balloons, pasties, and red heels. She pops the balloons with an unsettlingly large Michael Myers knife, smears birthday cake all over herself, and then spits flames across the restaurant. It is magnificent, if not exactly academic.
With that out of the way, the Screaming Chicken Burlesque veteran resumes her position on the bar—Mangler has already put us through an array of cheesecake poses for the earlier two- to 10-minute “cardio” rounds—and we all begin scribbling, etching, and painting our live model again, this time for 20 minutes.
Over the chatter, clinking glasses, and a soundtrack of Dresden Dolls, emcee Shary Contrary has us toot on cheap noisemakers whenever Mangler performs something particularly sexy or kittenish. Outside, passersby perform double takes. Some come back for a second, third, or fourth look, cracking Mangler up. Between all this and the prize giveaways, Contrary is making good on her promise to fuse life drawing with cabaret.
“In a regular art class, the models don’t interact with the crowd,” Contrary explains to the Straight. “And it’s very desexualized. My class turns that on its head. I’m hiring a personality. It’s performance, and everyone is involved. Even the artists talk to each other a lot more than in a regular art class.”
The booze probably helps. Contrary, whose velvet “Hot Rods & Heels” paintings line the walls of the funky Mount Pleasant restaurant, continues: “I found life drawing boring. I found it very tense, and a little intimidating. It’s a scary place to go for someone who just wants to experiment. It’s so quiet and sterile.”
The Dr. Sketchy’s franchise was started in New York by art star Molly Crabapple, who plunked a recent class right in the middle of Times Square. Since 2005, Crabapple has exported Dr. Sketchy’s to more than 90 locations worldwide for a small fee. “We can make it whatever we want to be,” Contrary says. “Molly Crabapple says she’s not an overlord.”
Contrary was prompted to start the local branch by her friend and fellow artist Megz Majewski, who first encountered Dr. Sketchy’s in Sydney, Australia. “I wished there was something like this in Vancouver,” Majewski says, “but I didn’t want to run it. So I told Shary, ’cause I knew she would.” She adds: “She’ll be turning people away at the door pretty soon. It’s been pretty packed the last few months.”
Contrary’s own work has long been inspired by burlesque. She launched the project at the Jupiter Lounge, with Mangler as her very first model, and monthly themed evenings followed with names like True Crime, Lusty Luau, and Dirty ’30s New Year. She feels that art and burlesque make an especially good fit in this city, with our evident preference for lowbrow. “I think it trickles up from San Francisco and L.A.,” she offers, from beneath a pink, homemade pillbox birthday-cake hat, “and there’s a big rockabilly scene, so all that car culture comes out in the art, too.”
The punters—a mix of comic-book, tattoo, and fine artists; animators; and regular folk—grow rowdier as the evening moves on, and some fairly exquisite renderings are created. Lilly has produced a striking set with pastels, watercolour, graphite, charcoal, pencil, “and cupcake”, she says.
Contrary, meanwhile, is proudly beaming after a year of successfully bringing a touch of decadence to draftsmanship. “Vancouver is swimming with artists and it’s just really short on occasions and venues for them to all meet,” she says. Contrary also reports that there’s yet another benefit to Dr. Sketchy’s that you won’t find in the literature. “I’ve seen people hook up afterwards,” she says, smiling. “It’s quite a service I’m providing.”