From Albrecht Dürer’s 16th-century vision of the world to Lewis & Clark’s pioneering charting of the vast American interior, historic maps can embody both the spirit of adventure and exploration. The art of cartography is not a vestige of a bygone era, however as contemporary map-makers are carrying this craft into the satellite age. Among these is Connie Brown, who creates a brilliant array of individualized maps at her Connecticut studio Redstone. "We’re in the midst of a mapmaking renaissance," says Brown. On 24 June, Brown will bring her insights on the world of maps to The Cartographer’s View, an evening hosted by Sotheby’s and Atlas Obscura, where guests will be offered a rare glimpse of historic maps including the first obtainable authentic map with the place name "America." Here, Brown helps us navigate the world of maps by answering a few of our most pressing questions.
MAP-MAKER CONNIE BROWN BESIDE HER ELEPHANT MAP TO BENEFIT THE DAVID SHELDRICK WILDLIFE TRUST.
How did you become interested in mapmaking? What was your background?
I don’t have a degree in cartography and I don’t have a degree in art – that’s my disclaimer. I studied English literature. People are supposed to have revelations on mountaintops and I did. I was traveling in the Pyrenees and I came to the summit of a mountain. I was exhausted, but there were peeks in every direction. Nature is so vast in that kind of setting and you want to do something with it, capture it somehow. I didn’t have a camera with me. I realized I wanted to make a map. Our guide marked out some trails for me, all in different scales; I didn’t know how to reconcile this at that point and I was more interested in the decorative aspects – the borders, colors and lettering I’d seen in 17th-century maps.
I was at a crossroads in my life and decided that I wanted to create maps for people. My training was idiosyncratic to say the least, I learned as I was working. I spent a lot of time in the Map Division of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, studying and reading.
BROWN'S CONTEMPORARY T-O MAP INSPIRED BY MEDEIVAL DEPICTIONS OF THE WORLD
What kinds of historical maps inspire you?
My original interest was the decorative side of maps, but after a while that changed. I started really studying cartography and working my way through the history chronologically. I was a drawn to T-O maps – I’ve always liked circles within squares just as a general graphic preference. To the medieval Christian world, the T-O map represented a belief system map with Jerusalem in the center.
This captivated me as a metaphor for mapmaking. No matter what the map shows– a human is always in the middle and the rest is an interpretation of the world or a part of the world. Greg’s World of Burritos, a map I made for my son, is directly descended from T-O maps. It’s a round map with a dot in the middle. The dot marks where he lived in Silicon Valley, and I just incorporated burrito restaurants (he really loves burritos) from Google Maps. What's funny is this wound up on some food blogs, and they critiqued my choice of restaurants. But, essentially, you can take these historic formats and adopt them into our current existence. I think that’s fun.
MAPS CAN BE LITERARY. BROWN CREATED A MAP CHARTING THE DIFFERENT TRANSLATIONS OF ALICE IN WONDERLAND AROUND THE WORLD. HERE, THE DIFFERENT TRANSLATIONS INTO SPANISH DIALECTS ARE FEATURED.
What kind of maps are you usually commissioned to make?
It's a wide range. A lot of my commissions come from travelers. I always return to that moment on the mountaintop, when nature seemed so immense, and I wanted to make it mine. I think that’s what people do. Often people come to me because they’ve had an extraordinary experience and they want to memorialize it. Other times these maps are gifts for the person who has everything. I also make property maps for ranches or estates – sprawling – and I capture things that aren’t visible from aerial maps. From an official map I might not be able to see trails walls or borders – those special spots that are famous within a family. I also make stewardship and public art maps that are educational; for instance, I made a map of the Hudson River and its watershed.
Do you have any projects that really stand out in your mind?
For collector of Lewis Carroll books, first editions and ephemera, I created a world map with the locations of translations of Alice in Wonderland into distinct dialectics and languages. At the time there were 174, with a concentration in the British Isles, India and Spain, interestingly. So in addition to the huge wall map, I made three regional maps. As an English major who studied 19th-century British fiction in graduate school, this was a dream project.
THE MAP ANOVE COMMEMORATES A FAMILY'S JOURNEY TO TANZANIA AND UGANDA. MANY OF BROWN'S COMMISSIONS COME FROM TRAVELERS SEEKING TO MEMORIALIZE A SPECIAL TRIP.
How to do you feel GPS technology influences contemporary understanding of maps?
A usual complaint is that people see geography in these little boxes. I am hugely grateful. For a mapmaker, I have a terrible sense of direction. Nowadays, maps are democratized. Anyone can construct a map with interesting results. My disappointment is that these maps are lacking graphically. There is no desire to make it look good; just a driving need to convey data.
Maps are really having a moment. They have become agents of action, with crisis-mapping helping people in natural or political crisises around the world. In that way, even traditional stewardship maps can become agents of change. They can inspire people to become more interested in an environment and preserving it.
Why are people interested in creating their own maps?
Some people are greatly interested in the idea of connecting a theme from their lives to a graphic space. Others are drawn to the more decorative aspects. I think the increased interest in mapmaking is consistent with the rise of other artisanal hobbies as an antidote to the technology that fills our daily lives.