Wednesday, June 12, 2013

The Sketchbook Project: Art on the Go

The Sketchbook Project trailer
This past Sunday Sarah and I met up with our friend Susan to check out a really cool concept: The Sketchbook Project. On their website, they describe the endeavour thusly: "The Sketchbook Project is a global, crowd-sourced art project and interactive, traveling exhibition of handmade books." This greatly intrigued us so we headed down to the Distillery District on that stunningly beautiful June afternoon to see if it was as much fun as it sounded. If not, we'd get to spend time with a good friend basking in the spring sunshine and walking around this very interesting area of Toronto. With any luck, maybe there'd be beer in our future! (Spoiler alert: there was! How could there not be?)

A crowd awaits their treasures
The Sketchbook Project is a mobile library (a big trailer) that is towed "all over North America" by Steve and Sara Peterman (despite her spelling of her name, how could we not be interested in this couple?), project founders and directors of the Brooklyn Art Library. There are only two stops in Canada (Toronto was the first stop overall on this year's tour; they will be in Montreal on June 16, so head's up if you're in that area) and none whatsoever in Mexico, but I'll try not to get too nitpicky about their claim, as I am just happy they got here at all. There are several different components (or "themes") to their touring schedule for the summer; the one including Toronto and Montreal seems to be something new for them (they refer to it as an "historic tour" on their website). Their permanent collection currently contains over 27,500 sketchbooks from 135 countries around the world, although they do not all go out on tour at the same time. The books themselves are quite pleasing to hold in one's hands; recycled paper with a rough-textured cover, neither too big nor too small. Of course, they don't always stay in that condition, as many of the contributing artists have glued their work to the pages, or made alterations to the books themselves. And the name "sketchbook" is not necessarily accurate in all cases, either: many submissions are of photographs, written words, scrapbooking, etc. It was a little different from what I was expecting, but that didn't lessen the fun.

Sarah showing us how it's done
Even though the four-step process to "checking out" a sketchbook was very easy and well-laid-out on this 21st-century "bookmobile", Susan and I were lucky that Sarah was with us, for only she had watched the online video outlining the procedure. She saved us from the potential embarrassment of just heading up to the open window and asking for a book—as I feel sure I would have done without her guidance. The first step was to pick up and register an official "library card" on the mounted laptop at the far left of the trailer. Once we had done this we circled around to the far right of the trailer to join the line there to request a couple of sketchbooks from among the approximately 11,000 in their current mobile collection. There was a second laptop there which was set up to accept requests based on "themes" that were pre-chosen, such as "Location", "Endeavour", "Diary" and, well, "Theme" itself. Many of these had "subthemes" and the process could take a moment or two to work out. Once you had settled on something the cataloguing system picked out two books for you: one based on the theme you chose and a second book, which they called a "mystery" book. I thought that was a brilliant idea to ensure that all of the sketchbooks in their collection should eventually be viewed by at least one person at some point on the tour. The choice you made—along with the choice made for you—was then sent to hand-held devices (which seemed to be iPhones) that each of Sara and Steven had with them. The pulled the books by hand and called out your name, at which point you stepped forward, took the offering and scuttled off to find someplace quiet to indulge yourself. We staked out a table behind the trailer, away from the hubbub and in the shade of a large metal sculpture, and dug in.

Susan and Grumpy P and the sketchbooks
On my first go-round I chose "location", which brought me a book contributed by an artist from Toronto...and then a second book, also from Toronto, which I thought a little odd. They weren't remotely similar in any other way, though, so it all worked out fine. In fact, the first book I was given, the one based on my "location" theme, was not particularly interesting at all, sadly. The second one was quite a bit more fun and that was encouraging. But my favourite of our first six was a book that one of the others was given (I think it was Susan, but I don't know for sure); in fact, the pictures and captions the artist placed in there spoke to me quite a bit and I was so enthralled by it that my two companions had to wait for a couple of minutes after they had finished perusing the other books before we could go back for a second helping. I held the fort (so we wouldn't lose the table) while Sarah and Susan took the six books back and checked out some new ones. When it was my turn, I chose "Travelogue" as my theme, took my two books and returned to the table.

My favourite of the day, by far
The first book was a great disappointment. There were virtually no pictures at all and all of the writing was in Portuguese, so I really gleaned nothing from it whatsoever. I would not have minded a book of thoughts and writings—although that was not really what I was looking for—but one that was incomprehensible to me was of little interest. However, I was richly rewarded by the second book I was given, the cover of which I shot a picture of and have posted here. I did not intend to take pictures of any of the books, because I didn't think that was very polite, but this particular contributor practically begged us to do so. At the very end of her book about London, she included a page where she asked us, "What does your city mean to you?" and included several ways to reach her with our responses. I absolutely fell in love with her work; all hand-done pieces, no two of which were in the same style and all of which were beautiful, in my opinion. The words she added, when she did add words, were sweet and complementary to the art itself; this sketchbook was easily my favourite of all the books we saw that day. She has paid to have her copy digitized (you can find it here) and I just took another look at it myself while I was writing this piece. It was much more impressive, as you can imagine, when I was holding it in my hands—for one thing, much of it is tactile art—but still very much worth the look if you would like to see it. My favourite of all of the pages was the spread with the library books, but it doesn't pop off the page the same way in 2D. Pity.

Sarah and the poutine (cool button!)
The three of us headed over to the Mill Street Brew Pub to have a pint and some light nosh. Sarah and I split a plate of their short-rib poutine (for followers of Ronna's Poutine Chronicles, we gave it either a 4 or 4 1/2 out of 5; it was really tasty but the gravy was a bit thin for our liking), Susan had a baked pretzel and we sat there with our beer and snacks and just decompressed. The place was half-empty, which I thought was odd for a mid-afternoon seating on a Sunday in the late spring but will definitely keep in mind for the future. Once we had finished our drinks we headed back out into the wonderful sunshine and took out one last set of books. Not one of these six really made much of an impact on any of us, but that's okay: the ones that hit home really hit home and we are already looking forward to a return engagement next year. Sarah and Susan each bought a blank sketchbook to work with for their own contributions to the project; hopefully on next summer's tour visitors will be able to gaze upon their works of art as well!

If you want to get involved and make your own contribution, it's easy to do and all laid out on their website. Go for it! Or, if not, at least try to check them out if they visit your area. We had a blast!


  1. It really was a great day! Now I have to get to work on my contribution for next year...

    1. Yes! Because yours will be the best in the whole trailer! :)

  2. Any more pic's of pandas at the zoo?

    1. Well, the summer trip to Kenora has rejuvenated my spirit a little bit. I will try to take advantage of that and start to write as often as possible for the next little while. If I can keep that feeling alive, I will continue the blog for as long as I can.

      Also...I didn't get a notification that you had commented here, so I'm just seeing this now. Sorry!


I've kept my comments open and moderation-free for many years, but I've been forced to now review them before they post due to the actions of one member of my family. I apologize for having to take this stance, but that's the way the world is headed, sad to say. Thank you for your understanding.

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