All sketched out

Upon entering the Sketchbook Project, you sign up for a “library card.” Proceeding to a computer station, you can request books by location, theme, format, or medium. After you’ve chosen, a staff member retrieves your object of desire from the stacks and calls your name.

The books have been made by any and all comers: for $25, participants receive a blank sketchbook and fill its 32 pages with whatever they want. Each person chooses beforehand how they’d like to categorize the book. Choices include travelogue, atlas, almanac, and plain ol’ sketchbook. This year’s most popular category was “fill me with stories,” which describes the sketchbooks well–most seem to fall along a continuum from art object to personal story.

Jani, an art student and hairdresser from Wisconsin, had come to the exhibit to visit her own sketchbook, which took her two months to complete. As she talked about her work, “The Grey Side of Life,” she took pictures of other sketchbooks’ barcodes so she could look them up later in the project’s digital library.

At the checkout counter, a girl named Martha hugged her sketchbook, titled “Opposite day.” One hour and many trips to the checkout counter later, her mother told her, “I’m all sketchbooked out.”

Over 10,000 books were made this past year. Once participants complete and return the books, they go on an international tour that includes stops in San Francisco, Toronto, Melbourne, and Chicago. While the sketchbooks are on the road, the barcode system “checks in” with their creators whenever they’re viewed. After the tour, the books will be retired to their permanent home in the Brooklyn Art Library.

The crew travels with the books. The group claims on its website that “a great road trip is always spontaneous,” and the project’s director, Eli Dvorkin, echoed this sentiment. He talked about passing through a ghost town in Nevada on last year’s tour. “It still had an opera house left over from the gold rush days,” he said. “The whole town, which now has about seventeen citizens, gathered around the truck for an impromptu exhibit.”