A packed house on a Tuesday night is rare for any bar, much less a dive in relatively sleepy South Park. On a recent Tuesday night, though, the Whistle Stop is a bustle of creative energy. Pints sit comfortably on top of butcher paper while patrons diligently sketch everything from silly, Pokemon-inspired monsters to elaborate, surrealistic scenes that look straight out of a Geof Darrow comic book. Some keep their head down, but most chat with neighbors and friends in between swipes and swigs.
It’s possible that Sketch Party is the most happening Tuesday night scene in town. The bi-monthly art event—where right-brained patrons come to draw, color and sometimes simply doodle on paper-covered tables—has seen a steady uptick in attendance and popularity since starting in October of last year. There are certainly plenty of bars in town that offer similar, art-based nights and workshops. Some have been doing it for much longer. However, Sketch Party co-founder Randall Christopher says the event has two things going for it: First, the price is right (it’s free and all materials are provided). Second, the atmosphere is relaxed and unpretentious and it’s a convenient gathering place for creative types to meet like-minded folks.
“To me, when we first started doing it, I was like, ‘this should be a community thing that can start building an art community.’ Just trying to get people to meet each other, that’s what I see as the real power,” Christopher says. “This isn’t the solution for the art and culture scene of San Diego, but I really think this is going to change something. I’m jazzed that people are meeting each other and becoming friends, and two people might meet and be like ‘Hey, we should start a gallery.’”
While there hasn’t been a gallery started as a result of Sketch Party, Christopher points to artist Laurie Nasica (who goes by the name Los Freedom Fries), as an example of a Sketch Party success story.
“Me and my friend started coming at the end of last year and we met a ton of people,” says Nasica, who is originally from France and recently had some of her works displayed in Pikku Salon and Gallery in Golden Hill after the owners saw her efforts on the Sketch Party Instagram page. “I’ve just met a lot of friendly people here. It’s cool to have a night like this where it’s not just another night at a bar.”
Nasica recently started painting after receiving encouragement from longtime local artist and Sketch Party staple Mike Maxwell. Active in the scene since the ’90s, Maxwell has seen art-themed nights come and go over the years and says he’s impressed with how this event has evolved.
“I like that it brings a very diverse group of artists together in a city where it’s sometimes hard for artists to get all together in the same room,” says Maxwell, who’s quick to add that he’s seen a lot of talent blossom at Sketch Party. “It’s not like we’re all trying to look cool like people do at art shows. Everyone here, because they’re drawing and making their art, they just seem to settle into the artists that they really are.”
Christopher began Sketch Party after he met fellow San Diegan Tom Haubrick and L.A.-based artist Ken Garduno. The two were Christopher’s booth neighbors at Comic-Con and had been doing a Sketch Party in Los Angeles. Christopher and Haubrick began talking to some of their favorite neighborhood bars and debuted the San Diego version of Sketch Party at Bankers Hill bar The Balboa in October of last year.
“To be honest, I didn’t know if anyone was going to come,” admits Christopher. “But it was packed that first night. So I talked to [Whistle Stop bar manager Craig Oliver], and he said we could do it here. The first one we did here was a mad house.”
Sketch Party has had a steady pull since then, so much so that it went from a monthly night to being held on the second and fourth Tuesday of every month (the next one is July 26 from 8 p.m. to midnight). Christopher can’t exactly pinpoint the appeal, but has developed some theories after watching the event become increasingly more popular.
“The fact that people are sketching on butcher paper is really critical because it keeps it informal and it doesn’t seem serious,” says Christopher, who just wrapped a very successful Comic-Con edition of Sketch Party and is curating a “Best-Of”-style art show of Sketch Party work, scheduled for Aug. 16 at La Bodega Gallery in Barrio Logan. “People aren’t showing up with easels and a box of stuff. They just show up and doodle. I feel like people who don’t think they can draw or are intimidated will come and they realize it’s still fun. No one’s felt intimidated from what I can tell.”
However, the scene has already developed naysayers. One artist, who preferred we didn’t use her name, told us that she used to go all the time, but stopped because it got “too crowded.” She also complained that because so many professional artists now stop by, that it could be intimidating to someone who just dabbles in art in their spare time.
Christopher admits that they may have to tweak the formula a bit in order to consistently present a welcoming environment, but maintains that the pros decidedly outweigh the cons.
“I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how positive the vibe is, but I know it’s not always going to be like that and that there are going to be people that bicker,” Christopher says. “Some guy stole one of the raddest pieces of art last week. I know there’s going to be some drama here and there, but I’ve been really surprised with how so many different kinds of people are meting each other, and talking, and hanging out, and really having fun. That’s what I’ve been really happy about.”