The Sketchbook Project: A Roving Art Book Exhibition

“You probably do sketchbooks and you stick ‘em in your closet and you never look at them again,” said Steven Peterman about The Sketchbook Project, an exhibit that opened Saturday in Williamsburg, and which showcases tens of thousands of art notebooks sent in by participants all over the world. “Why can’t we be your closet?” The idea behind the Sketchbook Project is simple. Sign up online, pick a theme, and a notebook is sent to you within 48 hours. Fill its pages with drawings, designs, doodles, watercolors, or anything you want, as long as it doesn’t change the size and shape of the original notebook when closed and as long as you send it in by the deadline.

Peterman, a co-founder of the Sketchbook Project, was speaking from the Art House Coop offices, a spacious loft in South Williamsburg where he works with his partner, Shane Zucker. Art House Coop runs several global arts initiatives, and The Sketchbook Project is its crown jewel. The notebooks have been packed and delivered to the Art Library in Williamsburg, where they make their first stop on the tour. After that, they move to galleries and bookshops in Washington, D.C., Austin, Chicago, and Seattle, among other cities.

The Sketchbook project started five years ago in Atlanta—the idea was an offshoot of Peterman and Zucker’s first collaboration, A Million Little Pictures (for that project, participants were sent cameras and then sent in the pictures they took). “The Sketchbook Project came pretty quickly after that,” said Peterman. Initially, the duo were capping submissions at 500, but they’ve since decided to forgo an upward limit; last year, they had 3700 participants. This year, even as they were feeling the weight of their popularity with a whopping 28,838 returned notebooks, the pair had already started making their system more workable. “It happens over 6 months, so we had time to figure it out as we went along, and we hired people pretty quickly. A lot of them are still here.”

“It was really like chaos,” Peterman said about the initial tours. “We really had no barcode system. We had nothing. We had their names on [the notebooks].” Peterman and the sketchbook team has sought to remedy the “chaos” in two ways. Last November, they opened the Art Library, a large tony storefront space on North 3rd Street in Williamsburg sandwiched between Mast Brothers Chocolate (an artisanal chocolate shop) and Modca, a new café by the owners of El Beit. Its purpose is to house the journals and have them on permanent display. Peterman and Zucker also began implementing a library system complete with bar codes to track individual books and their readers, who sign up for a library card to view the books. The artist can opt to get a text message or email every time someone reads their book.

Of the 47 themes to choose from this year, the most popular was “In 5 Minutes” (selected by 1172 people), “Coffee and Cigarettes” (1000 people), “Happy Thoughts” (734), and “Mystery Maps” (255). It’s not just working artists who are turning in books but a range of people, from practicing artists and 2-year-old artists-in-the-making, to stay-at-home moms who haven’t made artwork in twenty years.

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The Sketchbook Project grew from the desire to provide people with an alternative to exhibiting their artwork separate and apart from the “elitist world of galleries.” “It’s so intimidating to try and go to a gallery and show your work,” said Peterman. “We’re the complete opposite. No matter who you are or where you come from you can show with us.” The idea might not sit well with those who prefer to have filters between themselves and all the world’s artfully inclined, but with submissions “from 6 out of 7 continents” (most still come from New York), they’re tapping into a desire to share that’s pretty much everywhere. “We’ve had people from Cambodia, places that. While they might not get mail to their house, they signed up for the Sketchbook Project. It’s crazy.”

And while the publishing industry is struggling to find a workable system for digital publishing, people are still enthusiastic that the Art House Coop is supporting paper-borne creative expressions. “I think there are still tons of people out there who want to draw on paper and not into illustrator,” said Peterman, who went to school for printmaking. Zucker brings the digital interests to the fore: “Shane, the graphic designer and web developer is obsessed with new technology. And I’m the print maker who went to school for using old presses…. I’m always concerned with making the physical side better and he’s always worried about how we can make the technological side better.” But if people want their sketchbooks digitized, they’ll do it, for an extra fee. “We bought a real book digitizing machine. It’s the real deal. It’s what libraries will buy to digitize their books.”

“We never try to promise anything that is not going to happen,” said Peterman addressing a common misperception that they’re promising something like fame to those who apply. The Sketchbook Project doesn’t promise anything but visibility and accessibility, a national tour, and a permanent home at the Art Library “You’re not going to become a famous artist from doing this. But people will see your book. It’s a great place to send someone who’s like ‘I want to see your artwork.’ Go to the Brooklyn Art Library. We can pull out every book that this person has.”

Their next goal? For one, making their notebooks in-house rather than buying Moleskines. And being that so many of its participants live abroad, going international, of course. “There are just so many logistics we have to figure out before we can do it,” said Peterman. “It’s so expensive for us to go places in the US. I can’t imagine what it would cost us to go international. It will happen. If not this year. It will happen in 2013.” image Cryatif Ferrol of Montreal, QC, Canada (written by Tiffany Moore and Illustrated by Carl Roloff)

First Image: Natalie from Markham, Ontario, Canada

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