Ask any accomplished artist and they’ll likely tell you there is no better way to study proportion, perspective and structure than by sketching the human figure. But back in 1983, after the abstract impressionism movement of the 1960s, life-drawing studios were few and far between in North America. That’s when Vancouver artist Gerry Kelly set out to open Basic Inquiry, a life-drawing studio where artists could drop in and sketch live models any day of the week.
Susan, a longtime member and close friend of Gerry’s, recalls the early days at Basic. “There were the models, the artists…Margereta from Eastern Europe, Josie, who was Italian and the voluptuous Catherine.” The idea was for Basic to be a space much like New York City’s Art Student’s League, where like-minded artists could converge over a shared passion. “Gerry liked to build community… When we first opened he would start by introducing everybody to everybody. And then we would draw,” says Susan.
Though Gerry has since passed away, his legacy lives on. Basic Inquiry, a non-profit organization also known as The Vancouver Life Drawing Society, now offers drop-in sessions seven days a week where people of all levels and ages – makeup artists, amateur painters, retirees and animation students – sketch and paint experienced models in three-hour sessions that include long and short poses, for $15 a pop. There is also a gallery where members organize shows, often kicked off with lively celebrations.
Basic Inquiry offers no instruction or direction per se, but there is a volunteer session manager who ensures each session starts on time, organizes the music and ensures the models get their breaks every 20 minutes or so. Other than that the atmosphere is casual, relaxed and free. “You come in and everyone’s nice; you talk to people, you learn things, experienced artists teach you, the younger ones, the older ones…Drop in, come and go, it’s just so pleasant,” says Susan.
This pleasant environment has attracted a group of long-time members whose passion for life drawing drives them to keep Basic sessions going week after week, impressive considering they do it without the support of external organizations. "Basic Inquiry is one of the oldest drawing societies I know in North America – and offers some of the most diverse opportunities for life drawing on a regular basis," says Nicholas Jackiw, the society’s treasurer and an avid traveler who seeks out life drawing wherever he goes.
Though a number of competitors have opened up in Vancouver, Doug Smardon, the society’s president since 2008 says that hasn’t made him want to change the way Basic operates. The society’s promotional and fundraising activities (which have included outdoor life drawing sessions) are meant to sustain, not expand, the organization.
Staying small and not getting distracted with big plans and projects lets Basic Inquiry’s volunteers, models and artists stay focused on the basics – their shared passion for life drawing.