Art need no longer be a drag

Intimidated by the art world? New evening courses fuse night classes with nightlife, writes Caomhan Keane, with everything from drag to burlesque on the menu

THEY say the best thing for a case of nerves is a case of Scotch. I settled for hot buttered rums prior to my first foray in ‘drag’. I didn’t dress in women’s clothing for burlesque performer Lucy Rhinehart’s class. I did something scarier. I painted a self-portrait of whom I’d like to be in drag and showed the results to a class.

Ever since a former teacher had criticised my portrait of Mary Robinson because her curls were bigger than her eyeballs, I’d been scared of picking up a pencil.

Aine Macken’s evening courses fuse night class with nightlife. Art Clash runs every Friday at different, often secret, locations in Dublin, costing €15 per class for people who long ago gave up art.

“I’ve been working as an artist for ten years and, on many a night out, one friend or another would get pissed and confess to me their desire to be artistic. They just didn’t have the confidence,” she says. Isolated by the perceived impenetrability of the art world and uninspired by art in school, many people, this writer included, resigned to never being artistic again.

“People have an idea of what an evening art class should be. ‘You have to have an engagement with art.’ ‘You want to improve your skill.’ It’s all very formal. For me, in the ten years that I have been working, it has never been about how good the final product is. It’s been about the experience of creating something and how enjoyable that can be. I want to pass on the joy that artists get when they create. It’s not about being the best, or even being good. I just want people to make stuff,” Macken said.

Student talent levels varied, from novices to those with one toe in the art world who wanted to learn the tricks of the trade.

“It’s a really good opportunity to get an insight into an artist you like and see how they actually make something,” said Macken. “You’re not just sitting in on a talk from someone you respect, but attempting the method for yourself.”

Macken chose her peers to be the teachers, artists who were young, were successful in what they were doing, whose work she found interesting, and whose talents would inspire pupils.

“As most of the classes will be made up of young people between the ages of 25-35, I have chosen young artists. So it’s more like a colleague sharing than a teacher instructing,” Macken said.

Artists who have contributed include Steve McCarthy on illustration, Colm Mac Athlaoich on fashion portraiture, ADW on t-shirt stencils, and Gaëtan Billault on doll-making.

Macken taught watercolour painting, in a class that featured live burlesque performance; Peter Dunne held a lecture on the history of shock cinema in a functioning convent on the North Circular Road (before traumatising us with the screening of a shock film), while Fanci Schmancy, who runs a vintage store, taught a class on fashion and clothing customisation.

Art Clash is about making the pupil comfortable. Macken encouraged her teachers to set the scene for their students by doing up playlists, bringing along DJs, or, in her own case, providing live performers who entertained and modelled. “It all feeds into the casual quality that takes the anxiety away about making something perfect,” she said.

Rhinehart’s class gave people the tools to invent a persona, be it as male, female, or something in between. “It’s based on Ru Paul’s TV shows, Drag Race and Drag U, the former of which is like the X-Factor for drag queens,” Rhinehart said. “The latter takes the same concept, substituting real women for the drag variety, who now act as mentors.”

On the evening I attended, that role was taken by Miss Candy Warhol, a former contestant in the Alternative Miss Ireland, and Sharon Stoneybatter, a drag queen in her early 20s who had only been performing for seven months.

Doling out helpful make-up tips on how to make oneself more manly or feminine, depending on your desires, as well as expounding the wonders of the weave, they helped us select our drag persona, telling us tales about how they hit on their own.

“She was the girl who I would draw down when I was creating all my clothes,” Warhol, AKA Evin Dennehey, a former student at Limerick Art College, said. “She became the character I used in all my photo shoots and the films I created. One of the tutors saw that I wanted to bring her out of the page to life, so I started going to Dublin, because that’s where all the best drag shows were.”

Much like Warhol, my own persona, Tina Gurner, found life on the page.

Because I possess the art world’s answer to two left feet, the beautiful jungle queen I’d imagined, inspired by the ’60s soul legend, Tina Turner, looked rather more like Bo’ Selecta’s Scary Spice in my sketch. Despite my best efforts, the hot mess I had envisioned creating was just a mess.

But the joy of Art Clash is its openness. While it’s a learning experience, the emphasis is on having craic. My portrait got a giggle, but also some compliments, with Sharon Stoneybatter saying, “It looks like me.”

Both Rhinehart and Macken showed me how I could adapt my final product into a character. “I’m a totally different person on stage to who I am off it. I’m quite shy and reserved. But, once I throw on my smack and hit the stage, I could kill anyone who crosses my path,” Rhinehart said. As, one by one, we revealed our new identities, we discovered ourselves and our inner wants — the vegan whose outfit consisted primarily of leather, for example.

After a private performance from our mentors, we headed on for the traditional post-Art Clash drinks, to take in some actual drag queens doing their thing.

In the future, Macken hopes to hit the road, bringing Art Clash to the four provinces of the country.

“We’ve been invited to Wexford, Waterford, Sligo. Belfast, too. But I need to be able to afford it. All the money I make is poured back into the classes and I need to be able to pay my artists’ expenses. Artists are broke.

“These classes are a way of giving them exposure, which will, hopefully, introduce more people to their work and, at some point, make them some money.”

For their part, the tutors have become re-energised by the experience.

“There is this amazing eruption that happens when they finish the class,” Macken said. “A joyousness that comes with people wanting to know how they do what they do. And seeing people make things in the way that you do is really fascinating. It feels really good.”

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