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The Sketchbook Project arrives in St. Petersburg, despite trouble during transport

A fire in the trailer hauling the sketchbooks from Brooklyn claimed about 10,000 books.
Salvaged artists' sketchbooks from The Sketchbook Project, some of which were damaged when a fire broke out in the trailer moving the collection from Brooklyn to St. Petersburg.
Salvaged artists' sketchbooks from The Sketchbook Project, some of which were damaged when a fire broke out in the trailer moving the collection from Brooklyn to St. Petersburg. [ Courtesy of Steven Peterman ]
Published Mar. 22

The Sketchbook Project was set to be another cultural boon for St. Petersburg. In February, the “largest collection of artist sketchbooks” was on its way from Brooklyn to its new home at The Factory St. Pete.

The whole collection didn’t make it. Sadly, the trailer moving the entire 55,000-piece collection caught fire in Baltimore.

In what could be perceived as divine intervention, the accident happened right outside of a church. So while firefighters were putting the fire out, volunteers from the church and the community started grabbing boxes of books and stacking them in the church’s parking lot, where they stayed overnight.

No one was hurt, but about 10,000 sketchbooks were lost. Some were completely destroyed. The rest are going to be displayed at The Factory St. Pete, where the public can hopefully see them soon, although no date has been set.

Steven Peterman started The Sketchbook Project with a group of friends in 2006, while he was studying printmaking at the Savannah College of Art and Design’s Atlanta campus. Through social media, they spread the word and sent participants blank sketchbooks, which were then returned and became part of the permanent collection.

Submission fees helped fund the project, which moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 2009. In 2010, the project received 20,000 submissions.

In 2020, Peterman created the nonprofit Brooklyn Art Library, which housed the collection. Since its inception, there have been 19 volumes of the project, with submissions from around the world.

The Sketchbook Project space in Brooklyn. The project moved its headquarters to St. Petersburg in March.
The Sketchbook Project space in Brooklyn. The project moved its headquarters to St. Petersburg in March. [ Courtesy of Steven Peterman ]

Peterman and his wife, Sara, moved to St. Petersburg a few years ago to be closer to family, and in 2019 opened Pete’s General Store in Historic Uptown. They eventually moved to a larger space, now called Pete’s Bagels in the Grand Central District.

The pandemic made going back and forth to Brooklyn to maintain the sketchbook collection difficult, so Peterman and his small staff and board decided to make St. Petersburg its home base, with a space secured at The Factory St. Pete.

After the accident, Peterman was able to find another moving company the next day, two guys who wrapped the undamaged collection and brought it down to Florida. But he needed to get eyes on what was left in the trailer where the fire was, so he found someone to bring down the remnants.

That load brought more disappointment. Peterman was hopeful there would be thousands of salvageable sketchbooks, but many were moldy from water damage.

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“I’m glad that we were able to get out what we did from the church, because if the church volunteers hadn’t gotten them out of the truck, they probably all would have gotten moldy like that,” he said. “So thanks to the generosity of strangers that we don’t even know and still don’t know, we’ve been able to really save them.”

Peterman and his team are still trying to salvage some of them. They are getting a freezer based on a tip that flash-freezing the books will take the moldy smell away. Those that are too damaged for the collection will be offered back to the artists.

One of the books from The Sketchbook Project that was slightly damaged after a fire broke out in the trailer bringing the collection from Brooklyn to St. Petersburg.
One of the books from The Sketchbook Project that was slightly damaged after a fire broke out in the trailer bringing the collection from Brooklyn to St. Petersburg. [ Courtesy of Steven Peterman ]

So is the collection still “the largest”? With 30,000 to 40,000 books remaining, Peterman thinks so. But the damage and loss affected other opportunities, like plans to travel with the books, and put a hold on getting new submissions and exhibitions.

“It’s been really hard,“ Peterman said. “I mean, it’s something I’ve done for almost 17 years of my life and it’s kind of a mess, but I think we’re on a little bit of a upswing here.”

They set up a GoFundMe and have already exceeded the $50,000 goal. The money will help salvage a lot of the books and will also help replace a digitizing machine that was lost to the fire.

“It’s been really amazing because our community has really rallied behind us,” Peterman said. “I think out of the tragedy, hopefully we can really pivot this organization to do something really good with it.”

He said the goal now is digitizing the collection, “to really focus on how we can save this collection for hundreds of years to come.”

A whole wall of books is now installed in the space at The Factory St. Pete. Peterman said that, thanks to volunteers, things are moving much faster than he expected. While the space won’t be open to the public for a while, The Sketchbook Project will have a presence at the SunLit Festival’s Kick Off party at The Factory (2622 Fairfield Ave. S) from 6 p.m.-midnight April 1.

To donate to The Sketchbook Project, visit gofundme.com.

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