Photo by Emily Conklin
University and high school academics so forcefully pummel the brain with facts, numbers, dates and deadlines that it is easy for a 21st century student to forget the wonders that the human brain is capable of. This magnificence is easy to see if one looks closely enough. But for those less interested in introspection, it’s also on display between the stacks of the Sketchbook Project, nestled within the Brooklyn Art Library just four stops on the L train away from Washington Square.
From all 50 states and every corner of the world, artists of every caliber — professional, amateur or just creatives — offer a glimpse into their weirdly whimsical minds by submitting a personal handmade sketchbook or journal aligned with one of the Project’s many themes. From “Coffee and Cigarettes” to “The Apocalypse,” the artists fill their journals with tantalizing imagery and scrawled handwriting in a multitude of languages. The pages, which visitors can hold in their own hands instead of observing behind a glass display, offer viewers a lens into the intricacies of the mind’s movements. It is a rare treat in a world that often values quantitative performance over qualitative expression.
Sitting in the cool and calm of the library, it is easy to get lost in the little worlds of the sketches. Almost unnoticeably, your stack of journals grows effortlessly skywards. The colors and textures fill visitors’ peripheral visions as each page surprises with a new shape, medium or quirky added cutout. Sometimes one feels as if they are in a conversation with the artist as notes and writings scrawled on or under drawings invoke the reader, asking questions and inciting a personal conversation with oneself.
This exercise in stepping back and delving into the beauty of those unlike yourself, outside of your physical proximity or headspace, is an exercise in self-discovery and reflection. One cannot help but be inspired by the brilliant minds, clever commentary and creative effervescence in the sketchbooks. While a person with fleeting emotions, thoughts and preoccupations of the moment may enter the library while the sun is high in the sky, an entirely transformed person will walk out as the sun dips below the skyscrapers visible on the other side of the river. A calmness, confidence and renewed vitality for life and experience is present.
Creative expression takes one form when hung in a museum exhibition or next to a price tag in a gallery. It enters a whole different dimension when it is so accessible, created by someone just like you, who has found a voice and a venue for their admirations, passions, anxieties and fears between the pages. The Sketchbook Project is an art gallery unlike any other. This project invites its viewers to participate, to touch and feel and experience in a way that no other museum or gallery will.
Beyond that, the Sketchbook Project has no concern for level of artistic skill or training. It does not take into account GPA or ability to memorize dates. It helps us see the essential within, to unlock the artist in each of us.
A version of this article appeared in the Monday, Nov. 21 print edition. Email Emily Conklin at [email protected]