Colossal editor-in-chief Christopher Jobson spoke with Steven Peterman, the founder and managing director of The Sketchbook Project, in July 2021. This conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Christopher: It is unfathomable to me that a project you started before reaching the legal drinking age has grown to a library of over 50,000 community-submitted sketchbooks from around the world. Before we discuss the growth of the project, let’s start at the very beginning. Where did The Sketchbook Project start, and what were your realistic ambitions at the time?
Steven: Honestly, I’m not sure what I thought would happen. I was always really excited about the idea of crowdfunding and community art, but I don’t think it was until around 2009 that I knew I wanted to start a collection like this. Initially, we were just trying to think of ways to get our local community involved.
After a few years of various projects (disposable cameras, canvases, etc.), we started to realize we had attracted people from all over the world. We quickly pivoted to a plan that would allow anyone to participate. Soon enough, we would have over 100 countries participating in various projects. Even after that, we would always send the work back. It wasn’t until 2009 that we decided it could be cool to try and start a library/collection.
Christopher: Currently, how does the project work? How do people get involved?
Steven: You can sign up at The Sketchbook Project to order a book. Once you receive it, you fill it out and send it back to us to become a part of the collection in New York! Just like a local library, we catalog and organize each sketchbook that comes in so that we know exactly where it is. Brooklyn Art Library is free and open to the public, so you or your friends and family can visit the library and interact with our collection in person.
For our global participants who aren’t local to New York, we have the Digital Library, another free resource which allows anyone from anywhere in the world to look through our collection online. Participants can add an option to have their book digitized for $35. This fee helps us cover the cost of hosting the collection online, making additions to the website, and digitizing each sketchbook. Our staff hand-photographs every single page of each digitized book and uploads them to our library.
Christopher: Years ago, I had the opportunity to curate The Sketchbook Project’s first mobile tour, a collection of some 1,000+ sketchbooks that traveled across the U.S. in a truck you specifically outfitted to contain a library, sort of like a food truck but for books. How has The Sketchbook Project grown beyond your Brooklyn library location?
Steven: Yes! A special part of the collection that has sorta been lost in this Covid world was our tour. For years, we traveled the world with the collection, whether it was just on shelves, in our mobile library, or more recently, our Bookmobile. I think being out on the road was really special. Not sure what the future holds for that, but we are excited to find ways to make everything more accessible.
Christopher: Being the steward of this project for so long, what’s been the most rewarding? Is there any aspect or dynamic of the project that has surprised you or grown in a way you didn’t anticipate?
Steven: I really love talking to artists who made a book years before. I love to think about how our lives interacted and what, if anything, the project did for them. It’s still sort of hard to believe that I’m even a part of it. Friends I have met later in life always make fun of me because I don’t really talk about it.
Christopher: How do you balance the needs of your existing community—people who have participated previously—versus reaching a new audience and introducing the project to somebody unfamiliar with it?
Steven: This is a real struggle. We want to be able to focus on the collection that we have, but the model has never been set up that way. We find ourselves needing to focus on getting new participants in order to fund the existing collection. That is something we are working on.
Christopher: How has the pandemic affected The Sketchbook Project?
Steven: I want to say it didn’t, but in the past few months, I’ve realized that it did have a huge impact. It’s such an interactive project, and I think we lost a little bit of our spirit during the past 18 months. While the pandemic allowed us to build a more interactive online presence with our global community through online workshops or new pay-what-you-can projects, we lost a lot of the in-person programming that allows our community to interact with the physical collection.
We were forced to close down our library for a few months, just recently opening back up with limited capacity, and we currently aren’t able to travel or pop up throughout the U.S. with our books like we used to. The physical collection is an incredible creative resource. There is so much artwork from varying skill levels and artists of all ages, but there are also stories, secrets, hopes, and fears that create a magical exchange between the participant who created the book and the reader who is viewing it in person.
There is so much artwork from varying skill levels and artists of all ages, but there are also stories, secrets, hopes, and fears that create a magical exchange between the participant who created the book and the reader who is viewing it in person.—Steven Peterman
Christopher: Now that you’ve relocated your home to Florida and have so many things to focus on with life, a baby, and other business obligations—you’ve mentioned that the project is in need of help from a new partner. What’s going on?
Steven: Yeah, I opened a bagel shop in St. Pete, Florida. I think it’s my physical manifestation of a community space I had created with the project. But I have some amazing staff that are taking the reigns. We are excited to find more financial partners to help make a lot of the organization’s goals come true!
With the (Brooklyn Art Library) lease ending March 2022, we’re in a bit of a bind to find larger organizations that can help us establish a new model for financial security for the collection. There’s a sense that our success (charging for blank sketchbooks to fund the project) has actually become the burden weighing down the amazingness of the collection. We need to band together to find a solution to keeping the collection running without the help of more sketchbooks.
Christopher: In this upcoming new chapter for The Sketchbook Project, what would you imagine the perfect scenario is?
Steven: We are really excited to find someone or something to come and help us get to a new era. We imagine the collection staying pretty much intact but being funded through a donation model, rather than selling new blank books. That way we can focus on the stories, the artwork, and the education side of the project we so very much want.
Christopher: The education side sounds really interesting. How would that work in a world where funding wasn’t an issue?
Steven: We have access to an amazing community of global artists. We want to host free and affordable workshops, provide free sketchbooks and guided prompt journals to low-income schools, and further our mission to allow anyone to be creative without the financial restrictions. It’s always been important to us to utilize all the amazing people that have collaborated and submitted work to us over the years. Finding a way to use their talents to inspire other creatives and community members.
Christopher: The Sketchbook Project has continued by inviting the community to create sketchbooks around various themes, topics, and conceptual ideas. I remember the last time I visited the library before the pandemic, there was a huge collection of extraordinarily tiny sketchbooks. Are there any of these that stand out to you or that you enjoyed seeing the results of?
Steven: Yes! The Tiny Sketchbooks is one of the cutest parts of the project. We have always been so impressed with them all. The detail and storytelling in such a small scale is truly amazing. I don’t have one in particular, but them as a collection have been really special. It’s just another amazing part of the collection that needs to be preserved and expanded to allow more people to take part.
Christopher: How can us regular folks who don’t helm a major institution with a…