The "Jaws" theme music plays over the Windup Space's sound system as a short, striking young woman stretches out on stage in a shimmering green mermaid costume.
The woman stays very still, until she notices it — a five-foot-long shark, bearing its teeth and wagging its fin, floating directly above the pasties-adorned mermaid. And then the crowd, along with the night's model, Little Luna, erupts with laughter.
It's just another Monday night at Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School, the burlesque-meets-life-drawing session that normally takes place the second and fourth weeks of every month at the Station North bar.
This Monday, GiGi Holliday of Sticky Buns Burlesque will take the stage at 7 p.m. And in June, the Baltimore chapter — co-created and run by Mount Vernon's Alexis de la Rosa, 32, and Aaron Bush, 36 — will celebrate its fourth anniversary.
The Windup Space's owner and bartender, Russell de Ocampo, switches the brooding music to "The Little Mermaid's" "Under the Sea" from a laptop an the back of the bar. De la Rosa films the shark attack with her iPhone, while Bush navigates the Air Swimmer into the crowd using a remote control.
"Half of the things that come up just amuse us," de la Rosa said. "We figure our group has similar tastes, dorky humor. We figured they'd appreciated it."
The crowd of about 50 — representing a wide range of backgrounds and ages, with the women slightly outnumbering the men — appreciates the laid-back atmosphere, gleefully hollering and clapping for the midair fish. But only seconds later, they get back to work. They're here to draw, after all.
"It's a cool group to be around — people that just want to be artists. There's nothing like it," said Cara Casillo, a 34-year-old Bolton Hill graphic designer. "It's hard to find opportunities to do this after you leave school or get a job. It gets you back to the basics."
Founded in 2005 by Brooklyn, N.Y.'s Molly Crabapple, Dr. Sketchy's has expanded to more than 100 branches, including Los Angeles, Singapore, Montana and Tasmania. But it feels particularly suited to Baltimore's quirky arts scene because it's a little bit of everything — a place to try eccentric cocktails ("The Popped Pastie" features tequila, Sambuca and grenadine for $5), a few laughs and, most importantly, a cheap alternative to stuffy, too-serious drawing classes.
For an $8 entrance fee, a model will strike different poses for three hours, giving the audience plenty of time to sketch with markers, pencils and other media.
Despite the "burlesque" element, this is a place for artists, no matter the skill set, to come and comfortably practice life-drawing. There are long periods of concentration, with only an eclectic soundtrack of RZA and ambient music to break the silence.
But it never feels too serious, thanks in part to the goofy contests. Intermittently through the night, the audience judges random contests such as "Best Sketch With Your Non-Dominant Hand," with winners being rewarded with shots of liquor on stage.
Dr. Sketchy's is a lot of things, but anyone expecting a strip show will be disappointed.
"It's an anti-creep atmosphere," Bush said. "If someone came in with creepy intentions, they would get more nervous because of the atmosphere we have."
De la Rosa and Bush hosted Dr. Sketchy's at Mount Vernon's Dionysus for its first year. Before long, they were turning people away at the Dionysus door, and moved to the larger Windup Space.
The creators say they see themselves as hosts to an art party, measuring each session's success by the sketches and laughs, and not the profit. De la Rosa and Bush have day jobs and say any profit Dr. Sketchy's makes goes right back into promoting the next event.
"We have regulars that come to almost every session," de la Rosa said. "They say it's their favorite thing in the world to do. That makes it so much better on Tuesday morning when I say, 'Oh my God, I'm exhausted.'"
They're both transplants — de la Rosa, a Maryland Institute College of Art alumna, is from Long Island; Bush is an Asheville, N.C. native — and mention eventually moving to New York. When that day finally comes, they're confident they won't have trouble finding the right Dr. Sketchy's enthusiasts to hand it off to.
But that day isn't soon. There are goals — including a very specific milestone — they've yet to achieve.
"We think it represents Baltimore so much that I have no idea how long we'll do it," Bush said. "We could do it another two [years], another four, but someday we'll hand it off. But I'd be mortified if Cincinnati had a John Waters session before us."
If you go
The next Dr. Sketchy's Anti-Art School is Monday at the Wind-Up Space, 12 West North Ave. $8; tips for the model are encouraged. Doors open at 6 p.m. Call 410-244-8855 or go to drsketchysbaltimore.wordpress.com.
Five tips for your first Dr. Sketchy's
The Baltimore chapter of Dr. Sketchy's offers one of the most relaxed life-drawing sessions in the city. But in case you're worried about your first time attending, we asked co-founders Alexis de la Rosa and Aaron Bush to provide five tips for the newcomer.
1) Just come and have fun. This is a friendly, no-pressure setting for practicing drawing, whether you're a professional artist with decades of experience or you haven't drawn a thing since high school.
2 ) Bring your own art materials, but if you forget, don't panic — we have some on hand. Using color in your drawings can give you an advantage in our contests as well, so bring markers, watercolors, etc., but please keep the messy paints at home.
3) Imagine straining various parts of your body to hold fantastic poses in a sparkly, skimpy costume for three hours in front of a crowd that offers only occasional, half-hearted golf clapping in return. Sounds excruciating, doesn't it? Each time the model strikes an amazing pose, let him or her know. Just like you would at a burlesque show, express your appreciation with lots of hearty clapping and hooting.
4) There's free parking in the area, but come early to grab the best spots: Right in front of the Windup, or on Charles Street, south of North Avenue, or anywhere on North Avenue between St. Paul Street and Maryland Avenue.
5) Expect each session to be different. We have all sorts of models: burlesque and sideshow performers, roller derby girls, belly dancers, contortionists — you name it. If you know a sumo wrestler, have them call us. We're looking for one.