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.
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" (www.festivalofmaps.com) – 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 (www.nikolasschiller.com) 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.
"With the world already charted and mapped," he says, "geospatial art allows you to discover it all over again."
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.