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.”

Art + sex... Seems like an equation that works

But is it? According to local Vancouver artist and burlesque aficionado Shary Contrary, the humanity of art can sometimes become buried in stale, sterile drawings. Life is reduced to figures drawn and observed in tight-lipped scrutiny.

In Shary’s "anti-art" workshops, models become breathing subjects that chat and laugh and drink with the people sketching them. Not objects to be observed, but subjects in a cabaret performance, led by a gregarious host with a penchant for whiskey.

Aiming to combine art and performance, Shary discovered the original Dr Sketchy’s event, which was started by Molly Crabapple in New York City. Discussions with her friend and official photographer Gary Hendry, along with a few stiff drinks, led Shary to apply to start her own branch. The result was a Vancouver chapter.

Read more here

When Shary Contrary first emailed and invited me to attend a Dr Sketchy show, I’ll admit I initially hesitated. My drawing ability amounts to stick figures and cute round bunnies… not curvy burlesque models draped in lace. But Shary insisted that the show was for all abilities, so I showed up at The Wallflower on a Sunday night, pencil in hand. I found a delightfully eclectic mix of people – from anime aficionados to well-known Vancouver artist Neil Wedman, all crammed into the booths and tables sketching a black clad model furiously while a Charlie Chaplin movie played in the background. It was so much more exciting than the drawing classes I had taken in art school! So Shary and I met a week later to discuss the origin of Dr Sketchy’s Anti Art School over glasses of red wine.

Tell me a bit about the history and origin of Dr Sketchy.

It was started I think in 2005 by Molly Crabapple in New York. She just had this little idea. She had modeled as a life drawing model and found it really boring and very serious. So she had this idea to combine cabaret with life drawing, and it just took off! Her sessions started going every week. Then one started in Australia, and then from there they just started sprouting. I would always go to the burlesque shows here to draw and to get ideas from the girls on stage.

I was the one in the audience with the sketch pad. My friend moved to Australia and she found the Dr Sketchy’s there and sent it back to me and said ‘You should do this!’ I just thought, no way! But it was the kind of thing that I would really like to go to. So I thought about it for a year and no one seemed to be doing anything like it in Vancouver, so I finally just wrote Molly one night and said that I though it would be a great thing to bring to Vancouver. She wrote back the next morning and said “You think you can do this? You got it!” I started the first show in September 2008. There were 30 people at the first show and we were at the back of the Jupiter Lounge. Then 40 people at the next one – too many to fit in the back room! So I’ve moved around to different venues – Pat’s Pub, The Fall, The Beaumont, Guilt & Company for a while. Then we started doing it regularly at The Wallflower in 2009 and that’s become our regular once a month space since then. Every now and then I do an extra event, usually through the fall and the winter I’ll try to ramp up to two a month. It’s going really good!

So burlesque has always been involved then?

Yeah! I would go to the shows to find performers to do the modelling. I was the artist in the audience. I knew who I wanted to get and I knew how I wanted to design the shows. I was really just inspired by what I would like to participate in.

Tell me a bit about your background and how you came to be that woman in the audience with the sketchpad.

I was working in visual effects and surrounded by artists. I’m a painter, so I would go to burlesque shows for ideas. I like theatre too, so it was sort of my opportunity to get into that in my own way. I’m sorry, it’s so hard to talk about yourself!

Don’t worry about it! How do you choose themes for each event?

Often the models come up with them. It’s really their creativity that the show is based on. A lot of times they make their own costumes. If they have an idea that they want to pitch to me, sometimes they do it around that idea, or sometimes they have a theme that they always perform. I design all the music around whatever the theme is and try to bring the costumes and everything altogether.

So for instance, the night that I attended [Charlie Chaplin], did you choose the film to go with the theme?

Well Connie [the model] wanted to do a cross-dressing character, so it was her idea to do Charlie Chaplin. We found this film that had both a girl and a guy. Simply because we have the TV right there I often just put up films and play them in the background and that’s kind of like the soundtrack to the show.

So what kind of people usually attend Dr Sketchy’s?

Everyone! Comic book artists, costume designers, visual effects… a lot of animators, and a lot of newbies. I really want to have a show that’s not as intimidating as a regular art class. Even I find a regular art class intimidating to go to, it’s so serious and quiet and… boring! I would like it to be the kind of place where someone who has never drawn before, like those people who say they are no good at drawing, that my class is the class for them. We reward bad drawers! Often I give away prizes for the worst drawing.

What does the future hold for Dr Sketchy’s?

I’d like to do more shows. I’d really like to do it in more neighbourhoods. The Main Street show, and also it being on a Sunday, really attracts a Main Street crowd. When I had it in Gastown, it was people who were working in that neighbourhood who would come. The hardest part for me is finding venues that want to do something a little bit risque, and host a show for artists. The Wallflower has been so supportive and really cater to artists. Often they put up artwork that artists from the neighbourhood have done. They have a rotating show every month. Their goal is just to support the arts and they are happy to have us. I’d like to find more places that would like to do something like that.

Are you the only person organizing everything?

Pretty much! I have my helper Megz Majewski who is a local artist too. My regular photographer is Heather Renney. They help me set up. And then I have some volunteers, but mostly it’s me!

That’s a lot of work!

It is, it really is. But I’m really excited about it. It’s the best kind of work. I have a good time when I’m there too. I really enjoy putting it all together. It’s a service. I’m honoured to do it.