In 2006, undergraduate art students Steven Peterman and Shane Zucker began the “Sketchbook Project.” Over the next 17 years, the initiative turned into a collection of over 50,000 works by more than 30,000 artists. Their contributions ranged from love letters and diary entries to graphic novels and intricately-detailed masterpieces, all inside the pages of five-by-seven-inch, paper-bound books.

After 17 years, the Sketchbook Project shut down earlier this month, in the wake of a catastrophic fire that destroyed almost half of the sketchbooks. Now, the remaining 35,000 are en route to four small institutions spread out across the United States and Canada.

Steven Peterman was a 20-year-old student at the Savannah School of Design’s Atlanta campus when he started the project with Zucker.

“Initially, we really wanted to pay rent and have a cool art space,” Peterman told Hyperallergic. “Like every 20-year-old wants to do.” The two students cycled through a few ideas before striking gold: They would send artists sketchbooks to be returned filled with drawings and then stored in their space, at the time called the “ArtHouse Coop.” Creators would pay $15 dollars for a sketchbook, shipping, and a spot on a shelf, and visitors to the library would be able to peruse and check out the works.

With growing interest and a trickle of money coming in, Peterman hired the Sketchbook Project’s first employees in 2008 and moved the initiative to New York a year later, opening a physical library in Red Hook, Brooklyn. And that’s when the project “exploded.”

“We didn’t know there was this crazy world of people who love sketchbooks,” said Peterman, who was studying printmaking and has focused on photography since. “It just blew up and became what we did.”

The co-founders named the storefront “The Brooklyn Art Library.” In 2010, they relocated to Williamsburg and began offering artists the option to digitize their books for the fledgling organization’s website. The Sketchbook Project’s online library now contains 25,019 works. Zucker organized them into quirky searchable categories, such as “superheroes in everyday clothes” and “from a worm’s point of view.”

In 2016, the Brooklyn Art Library and its growing sketchbook collection moved once again to a different location in Williamsburg, where it remained until 2022. The space was open Wednesday through Sunday from 10am to 6pm, and anyone could walk in and pick up a sketchbook.

The Brooklyn Art Library in 2019 (courtesy the Sketchbook Project)

The project attracted sketchbooks from across the world. Sharmay Mitchell, who has since self-published an illustrated book of poetry, remembers how exciting it was to know her work was sitting on a library shelf for anyone to see. Mitchell also praised the project’s utter lack of curation, stating that more typical art initiatives are decided by a select few — a system that excludes “a whole swathe of people who could have something really beautiful and important to share.” She called the Sketchbook Project “a lesson in the beauty of rebellious inclusion.”

Bay Area artist Juliet Mevi echoed Mitchell’s thoughts, calling the Sketchbook Project “a democracy of art.”

“Some were just plain beautiful — well done by very talented and creative artists. I would look at them and just wish I could draw as well or paint so cleanly,” Mevi said, recounting scrolling through the digitized works on the project’s website. “Others were more personal and less polished.”

Many artists spoke to the emotional aspect of laboring over a sketchbook and then turning it in. Mural artist Sarah Harris spent eight months on her first sketchbook in 2011: “I poured a lot of very personal and emotional stuff in there, not really expecting to ever see the book again. In that sense, it was rather therapeutic.” She recalled visiting the library in 2019 on a trip to New York after a long year of receiving cancer treatment.

“It was quite emotional,” she said. “I’d forgotten all the things I had written in there.” Now a full-time mural painter, Harris credits the Sketchbook Project with giving her the “nudge” to pursue a career as an artist.

Sarah Harris’s sketchbook titled Expires In An Hour (courtesy the Brooklyn Art Library)

Artist and retired museum director and professor Charles Steiner created his sketchbook in airports while traveling back and forth to visit his dying mother. “It was a nice ending to a difficult time in my personal and professional life,” Steiner said.

As more and more artists submitted work during the Brooklyn years, Peterman took the project on the road. He built a “bookmobile” and transported the sketchbooks to libraries, art spaces, and schools across the country. Students and community members submitted work during those trips, adding to the rapidly growing collection. But the model wasn’t sustainable, Peterman said: Williamsburg rents were steadily rising.

Then COVID hit and shuttered the library. The organization ran out of money soon after. Peterman’s own life was changing, too. His wife Sara was pregnant, and the young family decided to move to St. Petersburg, Florida. They packed up the books and drove south. In Baltimore, Maryland, the trailer burst into flames. The fire destroyed 25,000 books.

The bookmobile (courtesy Brooklyn Art Library)

The Sketchbook Project raised around $60,000 in donations. Peterman found a new library in St. Petersburg and hired an employee to identify which sketchbooks had been destroyed and made the information searchable online. The process took the better half of a year. Peterman told artists they could request their books back; 2,000 artists agreed. The fire revealed that the project lacked the resources and manpower to properly care for its collection.

“Now running an actual small business, I see how much we struggled over the years and how much things weren’t the way they should have been,” said Peterman, who now owns two bagel shops and has a second child. “But we were just kids and we never expected this. It got so big.”

Sketchbook titled Dep(art)ing Passengers by Charles King Steiner (courtesy the Brooklyn Art Library)

Peterman found four small institutions to take the remaining 35,000 sketchbooks. The Stove Works art space and residency program in Chattanooga, Tennessee will take the Southeastern books. The New York City’s Children’s Museum of the Arts will take works by creators under the age of 18. The Wonder’neath Art Society in Nova Scotia will take the Canadian sketchbooks and recreate the library system. The Taube Museum of Art in Minot, North Dakota will take the rest, displaying them in a permanent rotating exhibition where visitors can sit and flip through them.

“We’re excited to have them live out it in the world, that’s what I’ve kind of always wanted to happen,” said Peterman. “It really was a fluke thing. I think a lot of art history is a fluke — just at the right place at the right time.”

Elaine Velie is a writer from New Hampshire living in Brooklyn. She studied Art History and Russian at Middlebury College and is interested in art's role in history, culture, and politics.