The art of Map Fest
As Chicago hosts a 'Festival of Maps,' a number of artists are finding inspiration in cartography.
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"With the world already charted and mapped," he says, "geospatial art allows you to discover it all over again."Skip to next paragraph
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Schiller is something of a curator of maps. He can point one to websites of antique maps, industry maps, and calendars detailing map exhibits around the world. The Internet, it would seem, abounds with cartograms. Twice, he mentions the Waldseemüller Map.
Printed in 1507, it is considered the first modern world map, the first to identify a new land mass called "America" – and the world's most valuable at $10 million. The Waldseemüller is currently on display at the Library of Congress in Washington, as part of "Exploring the Early Americas," which opened Dec. 13.
In his gorgeous coffee-table book "Cartographia: Mapping Civilizations" – with more than 250 of the Library of Congress's 5.5 million maps – author Vincent Virga refers to the Waldseemüller as "America's birth certificate." He describes how it was printed: on 12 separate sheets of paper using woodblock plates. When assembled, the map measures 4 ft. by 8 ft.
To see the way maps reflect our world-view, you need only compare the Islamic maps in the book, where Mecca is at the center, to the Christian maps centered on Jerusalem.
The epilogue of "Cartographia," "The Unseen Cultural World," includes William Faulkner's 1936 sketch of mythical Yoknapatawpha County, Miss., and one of The New Yorker covers depicting a New Yorker's view of the country – the 1976 drawing by Saul Steinberg shows hardly anything between the Hudson River and the Pacific Ocean.
"The book has definitely hit a nerve," says Mr. Virga, "and it's thrilling."
Barnes & Noble has included it in its Holiday Gift Catalog.
"I think people are hungry for connection, and maps connect us with each other. Every single culture produces maps. It is a human impulse to explore where we live," says Virga, explaining the book's popularity. "People hunger for stories about us as human beings."
And maps are essentially narratives. They tell where we have been and where we might go. They are history and interpretation. Fact and fantasy. All of which make them good fodder for novels and art volumes, as well as atlases.
Among the spate of cartography-themed books released this year is the handsome catalog for "Maps: Finding Our Place in the World," the current exhibition at Chicago's Field Museum in collaboration with the Newberry Library – two other participants in the "Festival of Maps." (In March, the show will travel to the Walters Art Museum in Baltimore; the city should also host a few other exhibits from Chicago's map festival.)
On a recent Friday, Mark Siegler is visiting the Field Museum. Or rather, revisiting. "This is my third time through," he says.
While the Carrie Secrist Gallery, just two miles away, offers up rooms of contemporary map art, the Field presents that other fanciful cultural artifact: the antiquarian map.
"This looks like the satellite images we see today," says Mr. Siegler, a Chicago resident, standing before Leonardo da Vinci's 1502 landscape map of central Italy. It uses color to represent elevation, the tint darkening as elevation rises. Leonardo pioneered this technique – called hypsometric tinting – still used today.
"I think it's spectacular," says Siegler.
"Maps stimulate the imagination and take you places you can't get to physically," muses his wife, Anna. "You could spend a lifetime traveling and you could never get to all these places."
• Stephanie Broadhurst contributed to this report from Chicago.