The Genteel
July 9, 2020


A wall at the Brooklyn Art Library hosting the books from The Sketchbook Project. "Source:"

Inviting its first submissions in 2007, The Sketchbook Project - born in the minds of art graduates Steven Peterman and Shane Zucker - is an interactive art project open to participants of all ages from across the globe. From experienced to first-time artists, individuals are welcomed to sign up to receive a sketchbook to fill, return and exhibit worldwide as part of the wider Sketchbook Project collection.

Initially displayed from the team's mobile library, which continues to travel Northern America all year round, the collection - now containing close to 30,000 books from over 130 countries - far exceeds the mobile library's capacity.

A selection of sketchbooks from the collection.

Expanding to fill a permanent venue at the Brooklyn Art Library and boasting a digital library of no less than 14,260 books, The Sketchbook Project's aim remains refreshingly simple: 25 dollars in exchange for 32, staple-bound pages and a chance for everybody to fill one in with their designs.

Speaking with The Genteel, Steven Peterman, Co-founder and Director of Operations at Art House, explains how the desire for inclusivity remains the true origin of their flagship venture, The Sketchbook Project: "In art school I really […] loved the idea of the public interacting with me as an artist […] I always felt that by inviting people to create with you it […] became more exciting."

The humble sketchbook - the chosen mode for participation within this project, aims to optimise the accessibility of art: "Everyone [can] use a sketchbook," Peterman continues. "People feel really comfortable putting anything in book form; I guess because it's not hanging on the wall […] it's less intimidating."

"It was kind of ironic [at first] because neither Shane nor I had ever really kept a sketchbook [but] a couple of years ago [we made] it a rule that all the staff members have to make one every year."

Other rules remain few and far between at The Sketchbook Project. However, when faced with 32 blank pages, guidance in the form of quirky annual 'themes' has been positively welcomed. From 'Paper Airplanes' to 'Dudes and Latitudes,' each year the team at The Sketchbook Project have provided contributors with starting inspiration at no cost to creative freedom.

"[The themes are] something we thought would be a one-time thing the first time we did them," Peterman explains, "[but] it is something we keep because the public kind of demands [it]... everyone is really excited about them." So excited in fact, that Random House even published a book about them earlier this year, titled 'The Sketchbook Project Journal: More than 300 Ways to Fill a Page'.

We have books from people who have never made art but it's about them surviving cancer. How can you compare them to an amazing illustrator?

Brainstormed by the team, themes range from accessible to whimsical. "A couple of years ago […] we really wanted to come up with one more theme and it was lunchtime and we were like 'let's do sandwich'," Peterman laughs. "Then we were like 'actually that would be really funny' and we've had some of the most amazing books under [that] theme; people took it really literally."

Fond memories aside, Peterman remains unable to pick his favourite sketchbooks. "I am totally about the collection as a whole. We have books from people who have never made art but it's about them surviving cancer. How can you compare them to an amazing illustrator? […] I think the most beautiful part is to look at them as a whole […], to walk into our space and be surrounded by 30,000 voices."

It is a 'space' that has undergone considerable change since The Sketchbook Project's inception. Moving the team's centre of operations from Atlanta to New York in 2009 and establishing a permanent base in the form of the Brooklyn Art Library, Peterman explains that when knee-deep in books and unable to find anything, such a move of location is inevitable.

"We loved Atlanta and we went to college there but […] it's a small town and we had so many more participations from New York. […] We were growing bigger than we could hold on to and we needed to figure something out. It was definitely one of the better moves we've made in the business."

From expansion to exposure, Peterman explains how The Sketchbook Project is enhancing its focus on sharing their sizeable collection. "It's grown so fast and now we are reaching this 30,000 mark [and] we think it's really important for us to share the collection with as many people as possible. We've spent the past seven years just focussing on getting new participants and now we're like […] 'here come and look at these amazing books.' We have 135 different countries in the collection so clearly there [are] people all over the world that would love to see [them] and we'd love to try to make that possible."

Founders Steven Peterman and Shane Zucker in the Brooklyn Art Library.

"We [also] want people to use us as a resource," Peterman continues. "We are the largest collection of sketchbooks in the world and we probably have one of the largest collections of living artists. We think it's so exciting that you can come in here and find someone you love and email them and connect with them - there's just nothing else like that."

Project participants have forged connections such as the hiring of illustrators for creative collaborations, with The Sketchbook Project having an impact on a much deeper level as well. "People tell us these amazing things," Peterman shares enthusiastically, "[One] woman made [a book] about surviving cancer and […] people [shared] it as a resource [online]." Now viewed more than 7,000 times, this sketchbook has become the most popular book in the project's digital library to date.

"We've had a marriage proposal through a book as well," Steven recalls fondly. "They planted the proposal in their book and came to the exhibition and got the book. [That] was really cool to see. We [also] just had a woman […] tell us that she had never made art before […] and that she was so inspired by doing the project that she actually applied and is going to art school now in her fifties."

The Sketchbook Project has had an impressive impact within its seven years of existence - one that appears all the more extraordinary given that the project is run by a small team of six who "kind of just go with the flow...". With a renewed focus on sharing their ever-expanding exhibition worldwide, the project is set to welcome even more unsuspecting individuals to unlock their inner artist.

"I've had so many people tell us that we've changed their lives," Peterman shares earnestly. "That's not something that you ever think you are going to be able to do for people. [That's] really exciting." 

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