Arthur Whelan joins the anti-art school movement for one evening.
THE DETAILS are, literally, Sketchy. The movement is spreading around the country. The characters involved are bizarre, including Hit Girl, circus freaks, punks, Victorian poets, fifties housewives, an evil Santa and opium-den dwellers. It even turned up in a prison last week.
Welcome to the surreal world of Dr Sketchy, in particular the local branches of a global "anti-art school" network originating in New York and described as "fringe performance" – a crossover between pop culture, cabaret, burlesque and drawing classes.
Doctor, they like your medicine, as the song goes. New Zealand's branches in Auckland, Wellington, Nelson and Christchurch are flourishing with inventive, character-driven themes, as a night with the Auckland crew illustrates, in every sense.
An audience of comic artists, amateurs and graphic designers – and tonight, the Sunday Star-Times – has assembled in the dimly lit Wine Cellar off Karangahape Rd.
This is not your traditional life drawing evening. Model Gwendoline has gone to considerable trouble to appear as Hit Girl, a theme marking the DVD release of Kick-Ass, infamous for its murderous martial arts midget, she of the purple wig and the foul mouth.
Gwendoline has the cape, wig, boots, and the weaponry and the soundtrack. For our first pose, she lets the bad guys have it, with both barrels. The pens scribble, the flashes pop, the Ting Tings' music pumps.
They call me 'Stacey'
They call me 'her'
They call me 'Jane'
That's not my name
We are also invited to supply the speech bubble to accompany the drawing. What would Hit Girl have said? Given the movie's reputation, the Star-Times demurs and pretends to be refining the shading on her outrageously high heels.
The prize-winning entry is... a bit rude.
Anarchy as an art form – that's Dr Sketchy, a vaguely nonconformist movement founded in 2005 by New York art-school dropout and former burlesque dancer Molly Crabapple (that's not her name, either).
The Wine Cellar in St Kevin's Arcade certainly looks the perfect venue for an underground, fringe cause, with its faded posters, battered piano leaning against the wall, crumpled carpet and eclectic seating arrangements.
Organiser Brett Armstrong, complete with beard and flat cap, also fits the part. A sociology teacher at university by day, he has the easy confidence of the natural raconteur as he hands out the spot prizes and sets up the poses – "Where are you from?" Otago. "Otago is ... hunting. Hit Girl is hunting her prey." A five-minute pose this time.
Armstrong, originally from San Diego, took over as organiser from his partner Rebecca, burlesque queen and Dr Sketchy model Leda Petit, and has seen attendance grow steadily.
"For years we'd get eight people at most. Now it's 30 people, regularly."
Last week, he and Rebecca took Dr Sketchy into new territory – prison. Their aim was to provide activities for women inmates transferred at short notice from Christchurch to Auckland Region Women's Corrections Facility at Wiri following the Christchurch earthquake, and the venture was a great success.
Initially the 17 prisoners were self-conscious, and it had to be a minimalist show (security clearances, no props, music or alcohol) but it turned into an afternoon of much creativity and hilarity. "We gave them a break from sitting around watching movies."
And that isn't just true of prison inmates. The sociologist in him notes that Aucklanders are "hungering" for the kind of experience Dr Sketchy offers.
"All you have to do is walk along Queen St. It's hugely consumer-oriented, there's nothing unique about it. At Dr Sketchy you can meet new people, develop interests, develop skills in photography and art – it's a pretty unique way to spend an evening.
"That's something I've learned about Auckland, there are pockets of really unique, interesting people. Considering how small New Zealand's population is, it's flourishing here."
Despite Molly Crabapple's background, New Zealanders appear to place less emphasis on the burlesque aspect and focus instead on more elaborate, character-based themes, in particular drawing on pop culture. The punk revival was in Christchurch, genteel Victoriana was Wellington's idea, and the fifties housewives in Nelson followed a sequence including evil Santa at Christmas, the opium den, and circus freaks complete with creepy accordion music.
Nelson has taken to Dr Sketchy since organiser Jasmine Turner, a burlesque dancer with the Diamond Dolls, discovered the Wellington branch online last year, and applied to Molly Crabapple to start her own.
Initially just a few friends turned up, but attendance at the once-a-month gatherings at Baby G's cafe/bar has grown ever since, attracting artistic talent ranging from trained illustrators to those of stick-figure ability.
Some themes are suggestions, others come from Turner's own "crazy brain". But it would be hard to top Auckland's latest effort: For Pain Awareness Month, puppeteer and performance artist Grae Burton produced a suitably themed costume featuring piercing, needles and ceiling-suspension (although Armstrong hastens to add that no models are harmed in the filming/drawing of these events). October 12's theme will be "exorcism", a nod to Hallowe'en.
The doctor's diary also includes appearances at the Waiheke Island burlesque festival on Labour Weekend this month, and at the Cassette Nine markets in central Auckland.
Today New Zealand, tomorrow the world. The movement is on the march, stopping for drinks breaks and to award prizes for the best drawing.
Dr Sketchy has branches in Auckland, Hamilton, Wellington, Nelson and Christchurch. See the New Zealand section at:
Sunday Star Times