San Francisco: Sketchbook Project 2011, exhibit and review

On Thursday I went to see the Sketchbook Project while it was in San Francisco. Not only did I want to revisit my Tisha book, but I wanted to see what the exhibit looked like, and page through some other artists’ books. It was a cool exhibit, though as far as my own state of mind, conditions were not ideal: I was jittery (my first show!), overheated, and developing a cold/cough. So I forgot to take any pictures of the gallery space, and I didn’t feel up to introducing myself to any of the other artists (sigh). Fortunately, fellow participant Kimi Kobashi did take pics, which are on her blog.

The following is a taster of the sketchbooks I checked out, in the order that I viewed them; interspersed are my comments from the show.

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First page

Theme: A Day in the Life (same theme I chose)
Artist & location: Jaya Venkata Chala, India

This book was the first I looked at, and I loved it. Aside from the one page of intro text, there were no words, just page after page of evocative pencil sketches depicting life in India. I wondered whether these sketches were done on the spot, or from photos (if the former, Chala is a really fast sketch artist!). The only thing missing from Chala’s vivid scenes and expressive portraits is color; however, the thread portraits on display in her online gallery are abundantly colorful!

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Sketch by Jaya Venkata Chala

I had expected the exhibit to consist of tables, chairs, and arrays of books, as in this photo of the Brooklyn Art Library (where the sketchbooks will be housed after the tour). But when I got to the gallery, I was surprised to see a reading area with chairs and sofas only — no books on display. Visitors had to check out the sketchbooks from a desk, two at a time, using a bar-coded library card. This meant it wasn’t possible to browse the collection, only to request books by specific artist, location, or theme. At first I was annoyed because I wanted to browse, but the checkout system quickly grew on me. Because we could only have two books at a time, and these had to be fetched by a “librarian,” it wasn’t worth it to only leaf through books quickly; it made more sense to really sit down and read them. As a reader, I think this gave me a better experience of the sketchbooks; as an artist, I’m grateful for the enforced sit-down encounters!

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By Susan Olsen

Theme: A Day in the Life
Artist & location: Susan Olsen, North Ridgeville, OH

Many of the artists used pen, pencil, colored pencil. and marker in their drawings; fewer used paints of any kind. This was partly dictated by the sketchbooks themselves, since the paper was thin. In the books I viewed, the artists tended not to use the entire page, so I liked this drawing from Susan Olsen, where the lines go right out to the edges.

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Susan Olsen’s bio card

There was a weird lack of uniformity among the sketchbooks when it came to the format. I don’t mean in terms of creativity, because the artists were incredibly inventive in terms of rebinding the books and attaching interesting things, but in terms of labeling. We were all told to write a bio to include inside the front cover. However, I only saw a bio card in about half the books (maybe the other artists didn’t bother to write them). Each sketchbook has a label on the back, giving the name of the artist, theme, location, etc., but I saw one label (only one) that also had a URL for the artist’s page on the official Art House site. I noticed these inconsistencies because I really wanted to know more about all the artists, and I wanted a way to contact them — but without a bio or URL, there was no way to do this unless the artist themselves included contact info. (To be fair, Art House has a directory of the artists, but it’s unsearchable at the moment — augh!) For a project that’s so heavily internet-based, it seems a shame there’s not more integration between web and physical experience.

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CaraLa’s sketchbook cover

Theme: Sleepless
Artist & location: CaraLa, Boynton Beach, FL

This book was the first one I viewed that used multiple media and some 3D elements (collage, cut paper). I appreciated CaraLa’s sense of humor and taste for bright colors!

It was easy to check out the books from the librarians, and retrievals and check-ins were quick; the exhibit was efficiently run. The couches were comfortable. Every sketchbook I saw was interesting, and some were downright amazing. It was so great to see and touch these creations from people all over the world — and there are many of them! According to the project website, there are almost 10,000 sketchbooks in the traveling exhibit. That’s an awesome level of participation. But as an artist, I’m also dismayed by the numbers. (As would say, it curdles my cheese!) How many times is my individual sketchbook going to be viewed? So far it’s been checked out only three times, and two of those people were my friends. Unless my numbers are unusually low, that’s 10,000 artists who aren’t getting the audience they deserve.

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From CaraLa’s sketchbook

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Detail from CaraLa’s sketchbook

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From CaraLa’s sketchbook

Moreover, even though we couldn’t really browse the collection, there was still a clear bias toward books with interesting covers or bindings. People would see unusual-looking books waiting to be checked back in, and say, “I want to see that one!” I would guess that those books got a lot more views than all the others, just because they stood out from the other thousands. I don’t hold it against those artists, but it’s hard for me not to feel sad about my work (and so many others’ work) getting lost in the shuffle. I really like my book and I think it deserves a bigger audience. When I came home from the exhibit, I started thinking: “Should I try to get this published somewhere else?” I even started researching submission guidelines for graphic novel publishers.

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Jared Tristan’s cover

Theme: Sleepless
Artist & location: Jared Tristan, Laredo, TX

Jared Tristan checked out my book a few months ago in Austin, TX, and was nice enough to contact me about it. Of course I had to check out her book too, and loved it! She used a lot of different media, so the book was really rich, and like her blog, her drawings and descriptions felt intimate and personal. It was fun to flip through the book in person — I enjoyed the tactileness of the painted textures — but you can view all the pages on flickr.

It surprised me how many sketchbooks were incomplete. I guess it shouldn’t; after all, the 10,000 books in the collection is already a huge reduction from the 28,000 artists who requested one at the start of the project! But it seemed like every other book had empty pages, and some of them weren’t even half full. They were still worth looking at, but if the project is thinking about reducing the number of books in circulation (and I think they should be), completion would be a good criterion to use.

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Katie Huckeby’s cover

Theme: Jackets, blankets, and sheets
Artist & location: Katie Huckeby, O’Fallon, MO

I appreciated Katie Huckeby’s use of sewing in her sketchbook. She didn’t just put fabric on the cover, but she also stitched in new pages throughout the book.

Another way to reduce the numbers of participants in the Sketchbook Project would be to run it via lottery. I love that it’s open to everyone and the participation fee is low ($25, plus an additional $20 for scanning and inclusion in the online library), but I really think 10,000 is too many books. Lots of marathons operate by a lottery system: you sign up once, but you only run when you’re chosen for that year’s event. This project could be done the same way.

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Detail from Jeramie Tolentino’s sketchbook

Theme: Jackets, blankets, and sheets
Artist & location: Jeramie Tolentino, San Francisco

This was a fun sketchbook to browse through. My favorite sketches riffed on the “jackets” part of the “jackets, blankets, and sheets” theme; I loved the fashion-drawing feel and the sleek lines. The plaid piece at left was the first page of the book, and when I opened to it I said to Erik, “Here’s someone who actually knows how to use markers, unlike me!” Tolentino’s is the only Bay Area sketchbook I looked at, besides my own, and that was an accident (I didn’t request a local book).

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Detail from Jeramie Tolentino’s sketchbook

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From Jeramie Tolentino’s sketchbook

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From Judy Durkin’s sketchbook

Theme: Secret Codes
Artist & location: Judy Durkin, Tacoma, WA

I could have repeated my markers comment about Tolentino’s sketchbook with Durkin’s, substituting colored pencils: “Here’s someone who knows how to use colored pencils, unlike me!” I liked the fullness of Durkin’s blended colors.

Like I said, I was sick and not feeling up to introducing myself to other artists, but I wished for some easy way to look at all their books. Since all the books and library cards were barcoded, it seems like it would have been fairly straightforward to put together a display of books under the heading: “Artists who checked in today.” It’s too awkward to have to get out a pen and paper and hold it out to a stranger, saying, “Hey, can you write down your name for me so I can check out your book?” How much more elegant would it be to be able to ask an artist, “So which one of these books is yours?”  Such a display would be a good way to allow some browsing, without opening up all 10,000 books to everyone’s hands. And it would be a sweet reward for artists who showed up to the exhibit — and I bet it would generate more conversation and connection in the reading room, too.

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From Gerda Osteneck’s sketchbook

Theme: Secret Codes
Artist & location: Gerda Osteneck, Regina, Saskatchewan, Canada

I really loved Osteneck’s funny and insightful observations, and the artifacts she incorporated into her book. But her handwriting is difficult to read, and since I had limited time and energy, I wasn’t able to go through every page. If more of the text were typed instead of handwritten, this sketchbook would make a wonderful coffee-table book (like PostSecret)… or a blog. Gerda Osteneck, if you ever start a blog, you’ve got at least one reader right here!

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From Gerda Osteneck’s sketchbook

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Katrin Waechter’s sketchbook

Theme: Things found on restaurant napkins
Artist & location: Katrin Waechter, Berlin, Germany

This was probably my favorite sketchbook of the 10 I viewed. It was beautifully put together, with neat text and line drawings laid out on the page just so, alongside envelopes containing restaurant napkins. Erik noticed that all the pages were masking-taped along their long edges, probably to make them easier to turn.

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From first page of Katrin Waechter’s sketchbook

Not only does Waechter have some of the coolest handwriting I’ve ever seen (look at those uppercase S’s!), but her book contained all the things I like to know about someone when I meet them: how old they are, what they look like, where they come from, a little bit about their life, and a glimpse into the way they think. Also, if we look at her book as a narrative, it’s very well paced and the words and images/objects play nicely together.

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From Katrin Waechter’s sketchbook

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A napkin from Katrin Waechter’s sketchbook

I’m still on the fence about whether to participate in the Sketchbook Project next year. I’m a better artist now and I’d have more time, plus they’re using a nicer, custom-designed sketchbook this time around. It’s been a pleasure to be part of something so big and diverse, and it would be fun to continue that. But I still have anxiety about my work not being seen, which is only exacerbated by my expectation that the project will attract even more participants in 2012. As it is, more people have seen my Tisha book because of my own efforts — this blog, Facebook, and website — than because of traffic generated by the Sketchbook Project. I can’t help but wonder whether it’s not a better idea for me to just continue doing my own work and publicizing it the way I’ve been doing. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.

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From David Rogers’s sketchbook

Theme: Down your street
Artist & location: David Rogers, Jiangmen, Guangdong, China

This was the final sketchbook I looked at, and it made a pleasant full circle from Jaya Venkata Chala’s — both show everyday scenes from foreign countries.

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David Rogers’s cover

If you’d like to sign up for the 2012 project, it’s a quick and simple process, and you have until Halloween to register and until January 31st to finish. The 2012 tour will visit both coasts of Canada, a number of US cities, and Australia and the UK (although not all the books will visit all the countries).

In the meantime, the Sketchbook Project 2011 will make two more tour stops — in Chicago and in Winter Park, FL — and you can always check out some of books at the flickr pool or on the website (or on my own Open Mic if you missed that post back in January!). Enjoy!

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Awesome page from David Rogers’s sketchbook