Macabre Drawing Time: Asylum Sessions at Undergrounds Coffeehaus

By MR Sheffield

It's 9 p.m. in a dark room behind a local coffee shop. A statuesque young woman with blue and pink hair poses on the stage holding a Styrofoam skull with nails driven into it, a mask partially obscuring her face, a plastic dagger sheathed at her side.

It's not a haunted house or an insane asylum, it's Asylum Sessions, a weekly drawing class that allows artists to delve into their dark sides. Most drawing classes are sterile, uptight, focused on nudes and formal technique. Not so here where the models are culled from the crowd and all are encouraged to put pencil to paper to see what twisted nightmares they may create.

C. Ryan Taylor didn't know that the Undergrounds Coffeehaus in Fort Lauderdale existed until he was invited to an open mic just about eighteen months ago. But once he set foot in the tucked away back room -- a dimly lit space with heavy, black curtains hanging behind a little stage and two comfortable, red leather couches -- he was in inspired. Taylor talked to the owners about his idea for a nighttime drawing class, and three weeks later, Asylum Sessions was born.

A graduate of Ringling College of Art and Design in 1999, Taylor spent some time in California working on movies and television -- he worked on set design, storyboarding, and movie poster design, among other things. Moving back to South Florida in 2008, he felt a gap. "Doing this [Asylum Sessions] is to fill that space. I'm making something bigger than myself. Sometimes art is a very solitary thing, but when you're working on TV and films, you're not alone. I wanted to have that again."

The night I attended, C. Ryan Taylor, Michael McDonald, and Tom Menniger sat, bent over notebooks, the sound of their pastels, charcoal, and pencils filling the room (well, along with the sounds of The Corpse Bride -- I'd come on Tim Burton night and they played his films throughout the session). Some nights are smaller, like the night I visited, and other nights will boast as many as 15 participants. Of course, this count doesn't include the models that pop in from time to time. Because Asylum Sessions is held at a busy, fun coffeehouse, they get quite a few voyeurs who peek, curious, around the doorway, only to be cajoled into becoming exhibitionists. They choose props from the bin that Taylor brings from home and get up on the stage to model for ten minutes or so.

This ever shifting cast of models is part of the night's charm. "It's different each time," McDonald says. "When the class is more crowded, I'll draw people who are drawing." Menniger smiles and responds. "I like when Ryan models. He makes expressions that are fun to draw." The men laugh, and Ryan fakes a 1920s accent.

These people are definitely having fun. But why come out at night, into the public, to draw? And why the darkness? Taylor focuses on themes that are routinely macabre: Edgar Allen Poe, The Goonies, Clive Barker, Salvador Dali, and, of course, tonight's theme, Tim Burton.

"My themes are on the dark side because it's fun, and well." He pauses, smiling. "It's pretty dark in here as it is." He looks up from his drawing pad. My husband has volunteered to model and he's up on stage, wearing a mask and top hat from the box by the stage. Taylor continues, "Everyone here has a different history, different experiences -- some have never taken an art class and others are full blown artists and teachers, so I learn as well. Getting out in public and doing this, we also get instant feedback. It's like riding a bike in a sense, you never forget how to ride a bike or create art, but unlike riding a bike, with this you get feedback right away from your models. They want to see the pictures and post them up on social media."

McDonald adds, "It's a new situation every time because someone else is in charge of it. When you become an adult and you no longer have the luxury of school, you do have to be willing to pay to be in a situation where you're not the boss and you just get to play."

"Who wants to work out at home, you know?" Menninger says. "You go to the gym. It's more motivation."

Asylum Sessions, each Wednesday night from 7 to 10 p.m., at the Undergrounds Coffeehaus, 3020 N. Federal Hwy., 5A, Fort Lauderdale. Each class costs $10 (money goes to pay for the space). Find Asylum Sessions on Facebook and

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