This past Wednesday, October 7, Art in Flux Harlem staged its first “Sip and Sketch” in central Harlem — a social event convened around nude figure drawing — that brought together amateurs and professional artists, friends and co-workers, locals and those living outside the city. More than being pleasurable and a commercial success, the event also suggests an intriguing way to consider the interweaving of art as production system with art as generator of social connections.
The founder and director of Art in Flux, Leanne Stella, says that Sip and Sketch sold out, drawing about 45 people to the the back garden of Cheri restaurant. While Stella had created a Facebook event page, mostly of the attendees heard about the gathering through word of mouth. Many arrived straight from work to make the 6:30pm start time. The crowd was an eclectic mix of bankers from Wells Fargo, a small coterie from CBS, and a variety of artists and non-artists local to central Harlem who have had experience with Stella’s pop-up gallery shown and the Art in Flux Harlem fair that took place this past spring.
Stella’s plan was to create an event focused on art making in a relaxed and friendly environment that would not be intimidating to those who were novices. (She estimates that 75% of the people who attended were amateurs.) To make the event lighthearted and leisurely, the $20 ticket price included a free drink, which most attendees took advantage of upon arrival. After some mingling and chitchat Stella started the event with a brief art quiz (with gifts supplied by the event sponsors) and then introduced professional artist, Uday Dhar, whose work Stella has shown before and who she invited to act as a guide for those who had not attempted figure drawing before.
Dhar began by introducing everyone to the male model, John Reig Jr., who has worked with the Arts Students League. Dhar made everyone feel comfortable easing into the evening with quick poses and sketches that then became longer postures as the evening went on.
According to Stella, most people were initially looking forward to the evening as a social activity, but when the sketching exercise began, most became keenly focused on their drawings. To break up the practice, Stella staged an intermission about every 20 minutes, during which she would present another quiz and introduce to the room the artists in attendance. As the evening came to a close around 9 pm, several people happily posed for Stella with their completed sketches in hand.
Life drawing has a long and storied history, particularly as one of the pillars of studio apprenticeship, even in medieval Europe. The Accademia degli Incamminati in Bologna, Italy was offering life drawing classes to their students by the sixteenth century. Though it has abated in importance as a fundamental training exercise within the fine arts, the tradition has persisted in art schools as well as ateliers, workshops, and meet ups.
What the Sip and Sketch event proposes is that live figure drawing can in some respects have a second life in this historical moment where engagement and sociality are fetishized. Rather than treating the drawing of the figure as a skill signifying a level of mastery that then constitutes the foundation of value for the finished work, the sketches functioned as the occasion for communal recreation. Stella says that she was surprised by the degree to which people were proud of their work and happy to let it be seen, no matter the level of sophistication. This seems a promising exercise to get audiences in Harlem, who might otherwise look askance at art, kinesthetically, visually and intellectually engaged, and, at least momentarily, connected to others. It is the nostrum that artists often repeat that is applicable to lived life, though it seems counterintuitive: it’s not about the work; it’s about the practice. There are many other sketch classes to choose from in the city: Spring Studio in Soho, in Chelsea, Studio 415, the National Arts Club in Gramercy Park,and the Draw-Mania meetup group that varies its locations. What makes the Sip and Sketch group special is its emphasis on the sociality that it nurtures, as well as it being (to my knowledge) the only such group located in Harlem — an area once renowned for its thriving arts scene.
Stella plans to stage Sip and Sketch on the first Wednesday of each month (except for December). For more details check the Art in Flux Harlem website.