You're an aspiring car designer and you've been invited to show off your work to some professionals in the field. The catch: You have to compete with more than a dozen of your peers, create a sketch in 45 minutes in front of a big crowd and be judged on the spot. No pressure.

Picture this scene the other night at Detroit's Tangent Gallery, one of many factories-turned-art galleries cropping up around town. Over on the North End, an up-and-coming area of Victorian duplexes, even more old factories and a few long-standing bars, crowds poured in from the North American International Auto Show's black-tie Charity Preview — a juxtaposed sight of people in tuxedos along heavily industrial East Milwaukee Street — to watch a crop of young designers at work at "Sketchbattle."

Sketchbattle was the winter sequel to DIM Battles, which fused street art, car design and breakdancing. Sadly, there was no breakdancing — but the event was emceed by a performance artist wearing mime-esque makeup and dragging around a dirty stuffed animal on a chain leash.

The setup is this: A few weeks back, art students across the region, mostly at the College for Creative Studies and Lawrence Technological University, both pipelines into the automotive industry, were notified and submitted early sketches. About two dozen or so were narrowed down for the night's battle, where they sat at picnic tables ready to sketch it out. "We want to make this the 'American Idol' of sketching," Brook Middlecott Banham, the event's organizer, tells the crowd.

Three professional designers — one a Chrysler designer working on the Jeep brand, two other industrial designers — are the judges. From the first group, five are chosen for the final round.

It's remarkably laid-back considering the button-up nature of the industry, especially the black-tie event from which most of the crowd came from. ("So we just go up there and judge this shit?" asks one of the judges after the first round? "Let's go fucking do it, let's fucking judge this shit.")


The first round has a theme of automotive lighting, while the second theme was a free-for-all, so long as it was automotive. The winner and all the finalists get, among other things, priceless one-on-one time with working professionals that could lead to future prospects down the road.

Banham and company want to take Sketchbattle nationwide, holding similar competitions among hundreds of aspiring designers while serving a dual purpose of raising money for artistic endeavors. That night, more than $1,000 was raised for the Kunsthalle Gallery, an emerging artists' haven just outside downtown.

Photo credit: Adriana Acosta