Talking Paper Interview Series: Steven Peterman

Steven Peterman is the co-founder of The Sketchbook Project, based in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, and founded in Atlanta, Georgia, in 2006. Since moving to its current space in 2009, the wall shelves of the organization’s Brooklyn Art Library have (as of September 2015) grown to hold some 34,000 5” x 7” sketchbooks containing the writings and drawings of artists of all ages and approaches from more than 135 countries. Like any library, those booklets are available for visitors to withdraw and enjoy in the pleasant confines of TSP’s cozy reading room space. Reflecting the Project’s egalitarian approach, its marketing informs prospective artists, “by getting a sketchbook, you are joining the movement, adding your voice and becoming part of something huge. Draw, write, collage, cut, print, photograph—it starts with an idea.” To help facilitate those ideas, and better engage with artists, TSP organizes an annual summer road tour with its own trailer full of sketchbooks. The 2015 edition began in Brooklyn in May, and made stops in Georgia, Florida, Texas, California, Washington, and Illinois, before wrapping up in Toronto, Canada, in late August. A printed showcase of hundreds of TSP artists from different countries was gathered into The Sketchbook Project World Tour, a 256-page 8” x 10” book curated by Steven and his wife, Sara Elands Peterman. I interviewed Steven at Brooklyn Art Library to discuss The Sketchbook Project, and the creative service it has provided to more than 70,000 participants over the past nine years.

On the Roots of The Sketchbook Project

We started in Atlanta in 2006, and we were just creating projects that people could be a part of. We thought of it very linearly with what objects could be found. So we were doing canvases, and disposable cameras, and then eventually sketchbooks. We really just wanted people to be a part of our gallery and create. The idea was that all these people come together. It was before Kickstarter, so we didn’t know crowd funding was a thing. We just thought, “Well, if all these people pay, we could do this cool show, and it would look cool with all these people.” The Sketchbook Project was just the one project that really took off that always seemed accessible to everyone. We used to limit it to 500 people. Then when we stopped limiting it, it grew pretty fast. Now it’s 10 years later, and we have 34,000 [sketchbooks].

The way that it works is people pay us the submission fee, they get the blank book, they fill the book up, and send it back to us. Then it becomes part of the collection. But they can rebind it. It just has to remain less than an inch thick, and it has to close back down to 5” x 7”. So some books do open up to posters or bigger things. But it does need to break back down, just for size, so we know exactly how much space it will take up.

We definitely have some local people that come in a lot for inspiration. When we travel with the project, we have the same group of people that come every year to the show, and that’s really fun to see. I mean, there’s little kids from Atlanta that are now adults that we have been seeing every year grow older, and their family has taken part in the project. Now in here, we have books from almost six years ago, so there’s like a half a decade worth of books. It’s cool that people can come back and visit them. But I think [our visitors are] a mix of people who are just obviously walking in off the street, and tourists, and people who come to kind of make the pilgrimage from all over the world to see their book, or who knew about the project from different parts of the globe. In the future, we really hope to become more of a reference, and get to more places. It’s strange, because we’re such an international project, we’re only in this one place, and we try to go to as many as possible. So we’re trying to figure out ways to reach more people out there.

On Organizing TSP Booklets

They’re all searchable with our own in-house library system, similar to a version of the Dewey Decimal System. You can search by theme, location, tag, or anything you want. You really can just search any word, and there will probably be a book. There’s tens of thousands of tags, so it’s really exciting to come in and search for like “cats,” and find books on cats. But then you can even go deeper and search “cats, France,” and maybe find a French book about cats. So all the artists catalogue their own book, and there’s a back-end system for them to do that. We also add staff tags as we go along sometimes. Then you just come in and use our kiosk system to search, and you can create a digital library card, which keeps track of your history and notifies the artist every time you’re reading their book. They’ll get a text message saying, “So-and-so is reading your book in New York right now.”

There are so many books, and it’s so democratic—in the sense that it doesn’t highlight anyone. There are definitely books that have been viewed more, because people are better at promoting themselves maybe, and they send more people. We have a lot of people who are cheerleaders for the collection, so then people come and look at their book too, which is cool. I think the more tags you have, the more chance that your book will be viewed. So we really encourage people to go through and keep that updated. But within the first year of your book being here, we tend to get at least a view for every book. So that’s great. I think people are used to a world where they put something on the Internet and it’s seen a thousand times instantly. That isn’t the case here. Your book may be seen by 10 people over its lifetime here, but that’s an intimate experience that’s not about being seen by a thousand people. It’s about having that connection, and inspiring that person that hopefully will then also create. So it creates this full circle experience. If people do really want tons of views, we encourage them to tell people to come here and look up their book. If you promote it yourself, then it is a great platform where it’s always here. We’re open every day. You can send people to view it.

On Sketching Words and Images

We’ve had a few particular projects that are strictly word-based. We had a memoir project that is in here, and it looks the same, but those are lined books. For the most part, I would say it’s probably 80% illustration and 20% words, if you had to do an estimate for all of it. It’s kind of interesting to have a mix of all of that. I think it’s cool when people expect to get an illustrated book, and they get a book that’s all written, or vice versa. We did a fiction project, where people hand wrote like 80 pages of fiction. Where else can you find that? It’s really cool.

We definitely have professional illustrators who come in and use this is as just fun for them, instead of it being their job. Then we have first-time artists. A story I always tell is we went all the way to Australia for an exhibition there, and this woman who was in her 60s and had never made art before, she did the project on a whim. Then she went back to art school in her 60s. We have such a range. We have really sad stories about people who lost their parents or their children. I know a woman, her husband was an artist, and he had died. She knew he would love this project, so she bought the book and put all of his artwork in there for him, and did the book under his name. I feel like that is what is so special about it. I think there are people who come and love this format, love the deadline, love the restrictions of it. But then there’s also people who like it gives them the chance to share their story in a format that is not just putting it on Facebook. It’s like this living time capsule. It’s a place they can come back and visit. We’ve had people who made books, and then did pass away, and then we let their family members borrow the book to have it at their memorial service. Now it lives here, and you can come visit it, and it’s really kind of a special experience.

I think the kids’ books are amazing. They’re so funny. There’s a large percentage of comedic kids’ books. It’s not putting them down or anything. They’re just smart and clever and they don’t hold back on other things. They just let their imagination do whatever. If it doesn’t make sense, it doesn’t matter. We have a lot of really cute books where parents and their kid will work together. A kid will draw a crazy abstract thing, and the parent will write something funny, or vice versa. I think those are really cute. I definitely think kids have a certain style. You can tell, and maybe that’s just how they’re learning to create at that point. We always say we could do a Sketchbook Project: Kid’s Version. I think it would be so fun to have all kids. We definitely have a range. I don’t know if I’ve noticed anything more than that they definitely have a particular style. There’s also some adult artists who still draw like that, which is cool.

We have really awesome photography books; we have really great pencil drawings, more detailed illustrations, and watercolor. When we started this, we assumed that we would get sketchbooks, and that is not the case. The majority are finished pieces of work. People put a lot of time in this, and view it as a finished product, rather than a quick thing that they just messed around with.

On the Importance of Tactile Sketchbooks

We originally started with another founder who is not involved anymore. He was the digital side. He was a designer, developer, and I went to school for printmaking. So we had this nice mix. I love buying vintage things, and I love the physical aesthetic of paper. We knew we needed the Internet, because we wouldn’t find people in Cambodia to do the project if we didn’t have the Internet. We wouldn’t be able to have our search system. But at the same time, when you go to the MOMA, you’re having this experience with a couple hundred other people, all looking at the same artwork. So there is that tactile quality, which is exciting. But what we really wanted to create was an informal place where you can just hang out with the artwork. You’re flipping through it, you’re touching it, you’re passing it with your friends, you’re starting a conversation. In a sense, it is an interactive installation. You are interacting with the artwork and holding it, on top of the tactile quality to it. It would not be the same if you came in and all the artwork was behind a glass wall, and you couldn’t hold it. It would be just like any other gallery. So it was more about creating that alternative space.

We really sought a partner that would want to work with us to make these books. They’re all recycled paper and made in the US. Currently, we use Scout Books in Portland, Oregon. We make them really simple, because we want people to feel that they can rebind them and do their own thing. I think something we all learn in kindergarten is to follow the rules. So I think people have a hard time understanding [their sketchbook is] truly just a shell for what you can create, and the more creative you are, the better. Somewhere here there’s a wooden box that has a book. It opens, and it’s the same size as the book. He cut his book down to fit, and he used polaroids, and it’s this whole crazy thing. But it fits the restrictions. So I think that is really exciting. But also, we are truly like, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” Because the most simple books that don’t change anything have the most amazing illustrators too, or the most amazing stories. So the only thing we really thought about was making it super-simple for people to read. That’s why it’s just a staple-bound book.

People can really do whatever they want, but we ask that they don’t put something in that would damage the books on the sides of their book. So there are books where we’ve had to ask the artist to remove something. We tell people no glitter, because it gets all over everything. Other than that, they can do whatever they want. I think it’s cool to see the range. Visually, I think a lot of people want to look at the book that they can see [on the shelf]. But you really should not judge a book by what it looks like on the outside, because there is such a range. A lot of people also do the project, and then see it in person, and don’t realize that they could go further. Then they’re like, “Next year, I’m doing something crazy”. I think I have three books in the collection, and I’ve done a range. I rebound one book, and then I’ve done simple quick drawings as well. So I like to mix it up.

The books get so much of their wear right away, when they are sturdier, because they travel for the first six months. Then they are on the shelf here, and we don’t need to move them that much, and people tend to be pretty careful with them. I am sure as we get into ten years of having these books, we will have [deterioration], and I think that is something we’re just starting to talk about. Do we have these in-house? There are times when we’ll send a book to an artist if it’s falling apart, and they fix it and send it back to us. It’s very few. Maybe less than ten that that’s happened to—if it’s to a point that we don’t feel like we can do it. But if there’s something that falls off the cover, we’ll help put it back on. Luckily, most artists are about craftsmanship, and people really take time to put it together. I’m sure it will become more of an issue as time goes by, and I’m sure there are books on the shelves that need fixing that we just haven’t seen in a while, too.

On the Library’s Creative Space

We don’t want people to rush their books. We’ve never created an environment where you would work here. It’s more about coming, being inspired, and leaving with a sketchbook to create on your time, or to meet other people in the community and do it. We are a library in that obviously it has to be organized in some way, or you would never find what you are looking for. But the funny thing is people do come in here, and we have music playing, and they are silent and looking through books for hours. So it is interesting to see how people react. I don’t know whether it’s because we call it a library, and they feel like they need to be quiet, or if they’re just so engrossed in the books. Probably a mix of both.

We definitely thought it was always important to have a communal table. We do the same thing on our traveling exhibition. We always have two long wooden tables that we set up, because we think that’s important. It’s also kind of the feeling where we have our samples out, and people can stand around and talk about them. Our new search system allows you to do it in your phone. Our idea behind it is that people would sit at the table and keep looking for books, while they were being inspired, so they don’t have to get back up. You can, but we wanted it to be where we don’t mind when people swap books with their family members or the friends that they’re with. It doesn’t have to be so formal, where you’re like, “These are the books that I checked out, and I’m going to return them and wait.” We wanted it to be this informal experience. So what better way than a nice long table? It would be weird if it was very private spaces, like a lot of public libraries have. We like the way this feels.

People will come to our shows, or they will be in here, and be like, “So I just look at the books on a computer?” And we’re like, “You’re surrounded by 30,000 books.” They just don’t even process that this is something that they can touch. This is how we’ve done it. I can’t imagine us not doing it this way. We’ve had museums sometimes ask if they can just do a digital side of it, and I just don’t even know why we would do that. It’s just not our thing. On top of that, people are also really surprised that these are all originals. There aren’t copies of these. There’s one, and it’s here, and you’re holding it. I think that’s just really important to everyone. I talk about this sometimes when I do public speaking, but I think people are now seeking this intimate experience. Originally, everyone was so excited about sharing on the Internet. But I feel like at some point we’re going to go back to wanting not just a thousand of my friends to like this, but to be able to share something with you and hold it. I think that’s true with our traveling exhibition especially. Here, too, having that kind of experience that doesn’t exist that much anymore I think is nice.

On The Sketchbook Project World Tour

That was really difficult. We talked to the publisher maybe two or three years before the book became a thing. We were always struggling with how to curate it, because we’d never curated a collection before. My wife, who runs the project with me, she was in charge of figuring this out. We started with all of the staff lists that we had made in the past, and were like, “These are all books we’ve loved. Let’s start there.” Then we eventually landed on doing it by continent, which we thought was the best way to showcase everything we have. Some continents were really difficult. North America was really hard, because we have so many books from North America, and we had to really narrow it down. We wanted it to be this range of styles and different backgrounds. Africa was harder, because we don’t have as many books. The weird thing is it’s a 250-page book, but that’s 1% of the collection. There’s so many more. It’s impossible to wrap your head around. And that’s only one spread of that 1% of the collection. So it’s just a fraction of what’s here. Hopefully we’ll be able to make more books like that, and continue to show people what is here and what kind of a resource it is.

On TSP’s Annual Tours

When you send your book back by the March 31 deadline that we have every year, your book will travel wherever we go. In the past, we planned these giant tours and committed 18 months in advance to a tour schedule, which we are not doing anymore. But we do plan on traveling with the project. You’ll find out later where we’re going. It’s just based on cities that want to bring us, or potential partners and things like that. Right now, we have a trailer that we custom-made, so it’s kind of like a food truck. You come up, and it’s the same experience as here, where you can use your phone, or you can use our iPads, and you search. We pull the books down for you, and we call your name out. We have the tables, and we go everywhere from LACMA in Los Angeles to the Distillery District in Toronto, where we’re just out in their courtyard. We have a lot of random different types of spaces. It’s a very community-based experience, and it’s kid-friendly and family-friendly. So it’s really fun. This is my first year where I have barely gone to any of the stops. I miss it so much. It’s kind of like that summer camp style of working, I guess. It’s a similar experience as here, but a lot more people looking at books at the same time, and it’s in a shorter time period.