When you enter the Brooklyn Art Library, home to the Sketchbook Project’s collection of 30,000 artist sketchbooks, you can almost feel the shelves vibrating with creative intensity. Decorated in every color and pattern imaginable, the books showcase the creativity of artists from more than 130 countries. Anyone can participate in the Sketchbook Project, and participants are free to fill up the pages of their sketchbook in any way they like. Some artists do exactly what you’d expect — sketch — and there’s nothing wrong with that. Others write poetry, create collages, even build sculptures that unfold when you open their books.
The joy of visiting the library is not knowing what to expect when you open up a sketchbook. Thankfully, you don’t have to fly to Brooklyn to get the experience because the Sketchbook Project often takes its show on the road with a mobile library that can hold up to 4,500 books (“it’s like a taco truck but with sketchbooks”). Even better, the hitch is making its first South Florida stop this coming Saturday at the Miami Beach Botanical Garden from 11 am to 3 pm (free event, full details). Ahead of the pop up, I spoke to Sketchbook Project assistant director Jessica Sugarman about making art unintimidating, digitizing a collection that grows by thousands each year and the project’s cardboard-box beginnings.
On your website it says, “And don’t even say ‘I’m not an artist.’” We have a similar mentality when it comes to our own community art projects, Sketchy Miami and Sktchy. Can you talk about why you welcome anyone to take part?
JS: Our project began as a crowd-sourced art project, and the idea has always been that anyone can participate. We have books in the collection from really any age and background and geographical location in the world that you can imagine. Our youngest participant is four years old. We have books from over 135 different countries….Everyone has found their own way to get involved kind of organically because it is so open. We try to make the process as easy and unintimidating as possible. You know, you get the book, you can fill it up, write, draw, collage, write poetry, whatever it is you do, whatever voice you feel you can add to the collection.
One of the reasons we like to travel with the collection is so people can see it’s not intimidating [to participate]. Yes, a lot of the books may be made by professional artists. But you’ll get a book that’s an incredible memoir or one done by a fifth grader. And you know, juxtaposing those books together on the same shelf creates this really incredible collection that we call the Sketchbook Project.
One of the cool things about a project like this is that artists can stay within the parameters and still do something unexpected. Does anything like that come to mind?
JS: Most of the books take it to another level. Some of the books are storybooks that could be published. Some books fold out into sculptures or really large posters, or once you open it up you can stretch it across the room. It’s really always wonderful to watch people get a book that is like that, that has some kind of formatting. There’s a book that turns into a sculpture of a carousel. There’s a book I discovered last summer, the artist is a new-media artist, and she integrated the drawings in her book with an app that does augmented reality. So you can download the app and line up your iPhone with the images [in the book] and other things appear to interact with, with sound and motion. It’s really cool….But sometimes it’s the most unassuming book that you’ll open up and it’s mind blowing.
In addition to your brick-and-mortar library, you have a digital library where people can check out thousands of the books in your collection. Why was it important to offer that?
JS: Digitizing is an option for the artists. It’s an additional cost. About 60% of the books in the collection are digitized so you can view tens of thousands of the books online. One of the reasons to offer the digital library, even though we’re such an analog project and all about the in-person experience of viewing the books — we know we can’t travel around the world and reach 135 countries in person with the collection. The digital library gives people access to the books, and gives artists the chance to share their own work. People view the book in the library sometimes, fall in love with it, then they go home and re-read it [online].
Can you talk about the importance of touring to give people around the country a chance to experience the Sketchbook Project in person?
JS: We’ve been touring with the project pretty much since it began in 2006, but in different ways. The very first tour, the two founders drove around to galleries in a few cities with the books in cardboard boxes in the back of their car. [After that] we had rolling bookcases. They were nice shelves, painted white and all the books were organized on them. We had 10,000 books on these shelves, and we’d strap them to a truck and bring them to different galleries around the country that let us set up inside their space. It was really labor intensive and pretty much prevented us from showing anywhere that had a staircase. So we knew there had to be a better way….So we designed the mobile library. It holds 4,500 sketchbooks at a time on interior shelves that are built just to hold sketchbooks while we drive. Everything we need is on board with us…it’s really essentially a traveling version of the library in Brooklyn. And it’s made it incredibly easy to do more of these kinds of pop up events, where we can just pop the windows open and we’re ready to go, we can start sharing books. This is what we’ve really been all about lately, finding more ways to share the collection. We have more than 30,000 books and over a million pages of original content.
Is this going to be your first Miami stop?
JS: It is. So we’re really excited. There’s not many things the mobile library can do in the the winter…so going to Southern Florida or Southern California is sort of our only option. So yeah, we’re excited to get the library on the road a little earlier than we thought.