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The Sketchbook Project

How one global art community is connecting through sketchbooks

by Aaron Kohn
on 01 April 2011

Five years ago, Shane Zucker and Steven Peterman, fed up with the challenge of making a living as artists, founded Art House as a student project. Now, the active online community has over 50,000 users and an art library that is traveling the United States.

Art House's beginnings go back to Atlanta College of Art (SCAD since bought it), where Shane was studying graphic design and Steven, printmaking. Seeing their friends daunted by the task of getting into galleries as a daunting task, the two rented a space and held their own pay-to-play exhibit, charging artists enough to show so that it covered their overhead.

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Shane's father mentioned sketchbooks—what if people from all over the world paid to submit sketchbooks to be displayed? Between April and November of 2010, 28,000 people signed up to be a part of the Sketchbook Project and 10,000 of the sketchbooks sent out to people in 94 countries were sent back. The collection is now touring nine U.S.cities and you can even get a library card to check them out.

Shane sat down with me and a new member of the Art House team, Eli Dvorkin, recently to explain the power of community.

What is the meaning of paying to be part of an art project?

Eli: We're not telling anyone that they are going to suddenly become famous through this. Also, we don't sell any of the work. There's no financial benefit to anyone here. If you think about the resources that go into this tour and having a permanent space in Brooklyn, it adds up to a lot of money and time. As five people or even 100 of your closest friends, you could never do this, but when 10,000 people come together, you can actually do it.
Shane: For a lot of galleries, art is a means of commerce. They make money. That's just not us.

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How would you describe the typical participant?

S: Serious artists. Scrapbookers. Moms. There's a huge range of people who do the Sketchbook Project. There are teachers that have their students do it and then there are senior citizens who are just bored.

Is there any sense that you're reigniting peoples' involvement in art?

E: People have written exactly that to us. People say, "This is essentially my one outlet a year for my artistic impulses." Overtime they sit down with the sketchbook and it's with them for a good chunk of the year. We get little life stories. Like 10,000 lives on shelves. Only a small subsection is any formal study. It's cathartic.

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When you check out a book, you choose a theme. What's with that?

S: Steve came up with most of the themes. My favorite is "Science Project Gone Wrong."
E: I think I'd have to go with "Mystery Maps" even though I devised it. The themes are not rules, but it's interesting to see how a teenager in Singapore and a senior in Canada interpret "Science Project Gone Wrong."

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What's next?

E: We're starting to collect a lot more information about the participants. When you check out a sketchbook, the artist has the option to be notified by SMS and eventually you'll be able to get in touch through our website.
S: We're going to relaunch the site and will be scanning most of the sketchbooks so that people can start tagging individual pages of books. You"ll be able to search "Photography" and "China" and find results. But what's really cool is that we don't have to do that, because the community is dying to get involved.

Any personal projects?

E: Shane, you better not!
S: No, this has been pretty full time. I haven't even made a sketchbook. Steve started one, but I don't know if he finished it.
E: We have a lot going on at Art House though. Soon we'll be launching our own notebook collection. The names will co-ordinate to the sizes, like "Back Pocket," "Messenger Bag," etc.
S: And of course there's the tour and soon we'll start sending out the 2011 sketchbooks to participants!


The 2010 Sketchbook Project began in April, so stay tuned for this year's launch. Also, to see the library in person, check out the 17,900-mile tour or the permanent location in Brooklyn.

Photography by Aaron Kohn

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