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The art of Map Fest

As Chicago hosts a 'Festival of Maps,' a number of artists are finding inspiration in cartography.

By Teresa MéndezStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 14, 2007

At a recent art opening in Chicago, the Carrie Secrist Gallery was given over to maps. Considering the gallery's owner represents Antonia Contro, an artist whose work has long alluded to travel and exploration, the display wasn't entirely foreign. A little more unexpected was what Ms. Secrist had said a few days earlier.

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When asked for someone else who could speak to the appeal of maps, Secrist replied, "Basically the entire city is talking about maps right now." She went on, "Anywhere you turn, you'll find something" – conjuring an image of pages from a Rand McNally Atlas whipping down the Windy City's streets.

Rendered on a map, the cultural institutions taking part in Chicago's "Festival of Maps" ( – the event to which Secrist was referring – are a series of some 20 red dots. (The map, incidentally, is by Rand McNally, headquartered in the city.) Not since a 1952 Baltimore exhibition has the country seen a citywide celebration of cartography on this scale. Nor is Chicago alone.

Cartography today is ubiquitous and accessible. The Internet has made it so that just about anyone can be a cartographer; the simple click of a mouse lets you map the distance from A to B. Yet, even as our mapping has become more sophisticated, with the uncanny accuracy born of global positioning and satellite imagery, it's the aesthetic of maps with the least utilitarian value that seem most to capture our imaginations: Playful or politically minded map art that transforms a familiar landscape. Ancient renderings printed on vellum or Egyptian papyrus.

About three years ago, John Krygier, an associate professor of Geography at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio, first noticed "a phenomenal explosion of map art." With a colleague he set about editing a special issue of the professional journal "Cartographic Perspectives" to document the interest in maps among artists. "Art & Mapping" was published last winter. Since then, Professor Krygier says, the number of artists working with maps has grown so dramatically that it's been difficult to keep track of them all.

They are artists such as Ms. Contro and the 11 others featured in "The Legend Altered: Maps as Method and Medium," the Carrie Secrist Gallery exhibition. And they are artists such as Nikolas Schiller.

Except Mr. Schiller hesitates when asked to define what he does. Is the young D.C. resident, profiled earlier this year on the cover of The Washington Post Style section, an artist? Is he a mapmaker?

"I make pretty maps or artistic maps," he says, searching for the right description, "or boutique maps." He finally settles on "conceptual cartographer."

Schiller takes US Geological Survey aerial photographs and plays with them.

"The Quilt Projection" – which his website ( calls "A Journey Through Geometric Geography" – is his most prolific series. It consists of 350 images that look less like maps and more like something you might see peering through a kaleidoscope.

There are the "quilted" neighborhoods of Mount Vernon in Baltimore, Md., and Stuyvesant Town in Manhattan. There is George Washington University in D.C., which Schiller attended for a time, and the University of Texas at Austin. Look close enough and you can identify familiar landmarks: streets, parks, a monument. But step back and the tessellation makes for a wonderfully abstract mosaic.

Schiller's work is a way to see the world anew, to be an explorer when nearly every corner of the earth has previously been combed.