The Sketchbook Project encourages anyone to become an artist

April 8, 2011

The Moleskine cahier is a rather unassuming object — a notebook thin and small enough to fit into your back pocket, ideal for jotting down reminders, a grocery list or bursts of ideas. But it’s also a favorite of artists, who see a wealth of possibilities in its blank pages.

That is exactly what Steven Peterman and Shane Zucker, the creators of the currently touring Sketchbook Project, had in mind when they started the project four years ago as art students. “They’re meant as just a place for ideas,” Peterman says of Moleskine’s popular cahiers. Project participants are mailed a notebook, fill it as they see fit (except with hazardous objects), then return it; the $25 fee covers the cost of the Moleskine and a nationwide tour where the notebooks can be viewed.

Nearly 29,000 notebooks were sent out this year — and of those, almost 10,000 came back. Participants have ranged in age from 2 to 90, Peterman says. The next round of participants can register for the project beginning April 15, the same day the tour comes to Washington for a two-day stay.

In a telephone interview, Peterman talked about the project, now based at the Brooklyn Art Library:

“We’ve used Moleskines mostly because, in the beginning [we] felt like it was a name that people knew. . . . People do everything from simple pencil sketching to giant posters that fold out of the book and become something else, and people do crazy cutouts in the book. It’s like the coolest thing — you never know what you’re going to get.

“We’ve had people do multiple books, but we’ve also had a group of people do one book and pass it around and each do a page. We encourage anything that people want to do. We’ve had elementary schools — each kid will do a book, or each kid will do a page.

“We have had some incredibly deep books, and we’ve had some that are incredibly not deep and just very straightforward. I think people feel really comfortable with this format — it closes, it’s something that’s not out for display [initially]. . . . It’s very personal, and you know it’s just going to be one person reading your book at one time, and I think people really let go. We get a lot of e-mails from older people who have been, like, ‘I haven’t done art in 20 years, and this project allowed me to do that.’

“We tend to get people who are very stressed about it and overwhelmed, but it’s supposed to be just a way to be inspired and just have fun. It’s not meant to make you stressed. They are sketchbooks in the end — they’re meant as just a place for ideas. You don’t have to have a crazy finished book if you don’t want to. You can take it for however you want.

“It’s all about your conceptual ideas. You can do whatever you want with it.”

The Sketchbook Project

The Sketchbook Project will visit Hillyer Art Space, 9 Hillyer Ct. NW, from noon to 6 p.m. For more information and to view more sketchbooks online, visit arthousecoop.com.

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