I am a collector of words. When I read - fiction, non-fiction, news or poetry, I take notes and write down words and phrases that inspire me. I then re-combine the words and add some of my own to create places on my maps.
I am currently reading the novel, “The Overstory” by Richard Powers. In this book, Powers addresses the fraught relationship between humans and trees: our need for trees as a resource and our blindness (sometimes) to our dependency on the existence of trees - particularly on old growth forests.
I’ve also been reading about the Anthropocene - the current geological epoch which many geologists propose to call the “Anthropocene” because of the significant impact humans have on the earth’s geology and ecosystems. Most recently, I read a compilation of essays, “Living in the Anthropocene: Earth in the Age of Humans” edited by W. John Kress and Jeffrey K. Stine.
Even before learning about the Anthropocene, my maps included deep time before humans were on earth and the eternal things that will remain once we’re gone. I took a hike this week-end and found some very happy mushrooms decomposing the forest floor and releasing nutrients for the trees and plants. I also spent time admiring the persistent weeds that grow between the cracks of my sidewalk and the moss that will grow on just about anything here in the Pacific Northwest. Nature gives me hope.
Another inspiration for the words in my maps is poetry. I love the poems of Mary Oliver - her observations of nature and the connectedness of humans and our environment.
Poem of the One World by Mary Oliver
the beautiful white heron
was floating along above the water
and then into the sky of this
the one world
we all belong to
sooner or later
is a part of everything else
which thought made me feel
for a little while
quite beautiful myself.
And, I will leave this blog post with a relevant poem about maps by Wislawa Szymborska. In this poem, Szymborska reflects on the beauty of the world from the vantage point of a person looking at a map that has only greens and browns for land and blues for water: no markings for wars, droughts, floods or mass graves. Maps can reveal or hide everything.
MAP by Wislawa Szymborska
Flat as the table
it’s placed on.
Nothing moves beneath it
and it seeks no outlet.
Above - my human breath
creates no stirring air
and leaves its total surface
Its plains, valleys are always green,
uplands, mountains are yellow and brown,
while seas, oceans remain a kindly blue
beside the tattered shores.
Everything here is small, near, accessible.
I can press volcanoes with my ﬁngertip,
stroke the poles without thick mittens,
I can with a single glance
encompass every desert
with the river lying just beside it.
A few trees stand for ancient forests,
you couldn’t lose your way among them.
In the east and west,
above and below the equator -
quiet like pins dropping,
and in every black pinprick
people keep on living.
Mass graves and sudden ruins
are out of the picture.
Nations’ borders are barely visible
as if they wavered—to be or not.
I like maps, because they lie.
Because they give no access to the vicious truth.
Because great-heartedly, good-naturedly
they spread before me a world
not of this world.
I really appreciate this opportunity and how it is pushing me to think broadly. Since last week I have been thinking a lot about representation and uncertainty, especially in relation to mapping and cartographic design. As I mentioned last week, representing uncertainty is a major problem in cartography, but, I think, one that isn’t often worked on by people who study cartographic representation because it is a “wicked problem” and because it is rare for scientists or others who create maps to want to make their maps or other data visualizations appear less certain.
This week I messed around with ways to try to mimic Karey’s artistic style using GIS computer programs. I still need to do a lot of digging, both to produce something that comes close to her work, but also to better understand how the computer is producing the particular results I’m currently getting…Right now I’m borrowing and modifying existing symbols and fonts that others have created. These symbols themselves are made of several layers of images. The image below shows the symbol I used for creating the blue watercolor wash effect, but when I look at it in more detail, I can see in the settings that it is made of 4 overlapping layers combined to create the wash effect.
Trying to mimic Karey’s style is an interesting exercise, but I don’t really want to be able to create her art using the computer, rather I’m hoping to explore the idea of uncertainly. My own work often involves a lot of uncertainty, which is one reason I have often tended to default to writing as a form, rather than cartography. In my work on sprawl and exurban development, I spend a lot of time studying the history of land use in an area and trying to imagine how the natural systems have changed over time or been impacted by human uses. But as we attempt to go back in history, archival records become more and more uncertain. In many parts of the U.S., European settlement began less than 200 years ago, so if we rely on written records, that only captures a tiny portion of the history of that land. So it is easy to tell the “history” of Medford Oregon (an area I have written about) starting with the gold rush in the 1850s, but focusing in this way ignores that Native people, the Takelma and the Umpqua lived in that area for many thousands of years. This is not my insight, a few years ago, Jessica Metcalfe PhD spoke about her work on fashion and creativity at the Rural Arts and Culture Summit, which I was attending. The phrase I remember is, “The history of this place did not start in 1850!” So many thanks to Dr. Metcalfe for pushing my thinking.
So today, for the first official celebration of Indigenous Peoples Day in Wisconsin, I want to think about who is missing from our representations of place. And, I think this, one of the things that art does better than science, represents the silences, the absences. So today, I’m thinking about the land I currently inhabit, near Menomonie WI, which is the unceeded territory of the Anishinabe and Sioux nations. Representatives from the Ahishinabe and Sioux nations don’t often get a space at the table when we make decisions about natural resource management. But I’m also thinking about all the living creatures that made up this place who were killed during the Euro-American process of mining this place for resources starting with beaver pelts, then logs, and today the growing of corn and soybeans.
One of the things Innisfree and I have been talking about this week is the possibility of using my artwork to create a template for real world maps.
This inquiry requires me to break down the visual imagery of my maps into distinct elements: dots, shading, colors, and fonts and then describing the meaning of those marks. What do the dots stand for? The shading? The colors?
But, the “symbols” in my maps purposefully mean more than one thing: dots can be birds, rocks or stars; lines can be roads, rivers or the passage of time; pools of color can be clouds or lakes or a mysterious presence.
My understanding is that GIS is dependent on borders and boundaries around specific areas (land, water, sky, north, south, etc.). My work has no boundaries between one place and another, no distinction between time, space, water, and sky.
Would it be possible to make a template for real-world maps that not only looks like my style but somehow adds an element of a blurring of things and a dissolving of boundaries?
Two years ago, I made a map, “Climate Change is Real,” that was grounded in the real world but also included more abstract ideas about deep time and things eternal.
I created “Climate Change is Real” as an artist, not a scientist. I didn’t use GIS to gather and analyze real world climate change data to reveal patterns, relationships and ideas. I painted a map that integrated real facts about the effects of climate change with poetic thoughts and emotional reactions to the changing landscapes and ecosystems of the world. I wrote emotional things like "flooding of emotions and lands" and "everything adrift" alongside facts such as "collapsing ice shelves" and "unprecedented global cross-border migration."
“Climate Change is Real” was one way to integrate my painting style with real world maps. I’m curious to see if Innisfree and I come up with something else altogether.
I have had several thoughts after a productive and pleasant video chat with Karey last week. It is amazing how just this process of discussion and reflection opens up space for new thoughts to emerge.
Talking to Karey about her work is pushing me to think about representations in cartography and in art. One thing that Karey said, that she was interested in abstract art, stuck with me. I don’t usually think of maps and abstract. The symbols on the map are meant to have meaning and significance, to represent real world objects, and yet, because the perspective of a map is unusual, everyday objects become pieces of broader patterns across the landscape, often appearing abstract.
One of the toughest parts of studying land use change and urbanization is that computers still can’t “see” the patterns on the earth in the same way that the human eye can. Most remote sensing relies on analysis that senses the earth pixel by pixel. So, the earth is not made up of things: plants and rocks and animals, but of grid squares that reflect light. Grid square by grid square, it is difficult to distinguish a skyscraper from the sand on a beach.
Until recently, computers could only piece together objects by analyzing each pixel, but humans could look at that pixel and make sense of it in relationship to other pixels nearby and the broader scene.
This means that studies, like Wheeler 2011, of land use change and processes of urbanization involve time consuming human evaluation of aerial photography in order to understand how cities change and evolve.
Recently, a new process, called object-based classification, has been developed, computers became much better at grouping individual pixels into groups of pixels in ways that form objects familiar to humans, trees, pavement, buildings.
So, computers are beginning to be able to distinguish between objects in an image, and yet there is another scale of patterning on the landscape, that of neighborhood: how streets, trees, homes, fences and all the rest come together in distinct patterns that can tell us something of the history of their development.
In a way, this pattern forms what might be considered abstract shapes. Viewed at this scale, individual objects disappear into the broader neighborhood pattern. But to a practiced eye, these patterns aren’t abstract. They reflect the processes that formed them, from eroding rocks, to home building, and tree growth. Which brings me back to another thing Karey mentioned about her work, that it gets her out of focusing on her own life and into thinking about processes happening at other temporal and spatial scales.
Karey and I discussed some more practical aspects of how we might go about creating collaborative works, but more thoughts on those will have to wait for another post.
"Who is the authority in making a map and also, does a map show reality or does it create the reality"?
Innisfree posed this question in one of our first email exchanges and it particularly intrigued me.
In my paintings, I create “worlds” and “locations” by labeling abstract marks (dots, lines, and areas of color). I am the authority in making the map, because the map is my own invention — the "places" on my maps don't exist in the real world. That said, although I don’t create maps of “real” locations, my art comments on and makes social, environmental, and spiritual issues more visceral and visible.
Geographers also create worlds when they label their maps. But, for geographers, there is real political and ecological weight to their labels — who gets to name the land, the rivers and the streets? Who decides the boundaries and protected lands? These labels affect everything: ownership, accessibility, paradigms.
Innisfree also asked me about the materials and process I use to create my maps.
I arrived at using map imagery from my love of abstract art: the color, line quality and inventive spaces of Paul Klee; the energy and use of calligraphic marks in Cy Twombly’s work; and the inward-ness and silence of Agnes Martin’s art.
I use watercolor and pens, stencils and stamps to paint my internal experience of place, as opposed to abstracting from what I see in the observable world.
Two of my favorite map artists are Julie Mehretu and Mark Bradford. Both artists use the imagery of cartography to comment on the passage of time, history and politics. Like my own work, their paintings comment on the history of abstract painting, but also use map imagery to convey a “no-place” and an “everyplace.”
In 1966, the painter Jean Dubuffet perfectly descibed my struggle to make visual my “mental space.” He said, “mental space does not resemble three-dimensional optical space and has no use for notions such as above and below, in front or behind, close or distant.” He goes on to say, “it presents itself as flowing water, whirling, meandering and therefore its transcription requires entirely different devices from those deemed appropriate for transcribing the observable world.”
I'm fascinated by Innisfree’s knowledge and skill at mapping and GIS on the computer. I know very little about real-world map making and even less about computer programing. I was only recently introduced to the world of GIS in January 2019, when Jacob Tully wrote an article about my work in "The Summit" - the publication of the Washington State Chapter of URISA (the Association for GIS Professionals). : A Portable Homeland - Mapping as Art & Seattle's Inscape Gallery.
Looking forward to seeing where these musings will take us.
This week, Karey and I have been discussing process. Karey described the process for creating her paintings as meditative. I have been reflection a lot on that and how my research processes and in particular, use of gis (geographic information systems), as a visual and analytical tool, might be similar. At first, I was a bit despairing because often working with computers and large datasets can be frustrating, rather than relaxing. Often, I feel as if I’m working to solve a problem, so the process often feels like. “Not fixed….not fixed…not fixed….not fixed…FIXED!” Certainly, the process of finding solutions to a problem is emotionally rewarding, but I wouldn’t say I find it meditative.
But upon further reflection, I do find motivation around my research stems from a deep desire to get outside of myself and consider the larger processes at work. It is a relief and privilege to be able to spend time reflecting on things beyond the day to day stresses of one’s own life. I often find ideas about my research come to me when I’m in a meditative state, busy doing repetitive tasks like biking or gardening.
The other piece of the process I have been considering is tools. I asked Karey about the tools she uses and thought about my use of computers in my research. I also searched for and dragged out some art supplies that had been in storage. Before gis, all cartography was hand drawn and processes required concentration and hours and hours of detailed work to produce a finished map. Computers have largely taking over the old processes of cartography, specifically because they were so labor saving, removing those repetitive processes that can be tedious, but also meditative. There are many cartographers today that combine manual techniques with digital ones, starting in one medium and moving to the other. Nothing on a computer can actually simulate manual illustration well, so it is not uncommon to create a map on the computer and then use that map as the basis for a hand-drawing final version. Recently, there have been efforts to create digital “map styles” that can quickly render the “look” of a particular hand drawn map.
Stamen design famously created a digital map style called watercolor, which can be applied to all sorts of map data to produce maps of anywhere on the globe in the same visual style.
This made me think, would it be possible to create a digital style from Karey’s work that would allow the computer to create a digital map of a real part of the world, but in the “style” of Karey Kessler? It might be something like this second watercolor style made by cartographer John Nelson. I did experiment a bit with using this style to create a land cover map of the area near where I live, but so far, I’m frustrated with the results.
Thank you SciArt for this amazing opportunity for cross-collaboration! As an introduction, I’m a visual artist living in Seattle, WA. I received my BA in Anthropology and Fine Arts from the University of Pennsylvania and my MFA from the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts.
I paint using the imagery of cartography (words, color, dots and lines) to explore my inscape, or internal landscape of time, place, and spirituality. For me, map making is an act of meditation - when I’m making the repeated dots and lines of my paintings, I stop thinking about the mundane events and obligations in my life, and start thinking about more expansive ideas about time, the environment, layers of geological history, the vastness of the universe, and the fleetingness of each moment. I then put these thoughts into my maps using stencils, stamps and freehand writing.
My work is included in two books about maps and art: The Map as Art (Princeton Architectural Press, 2009), by Kitty Harmon and From Here to There: A Curious Collection From the Hand Drawn Map Association (Princeton Architectural Press, 2010).
It makes sense that the SciArt Initiative matched me with a geographer for The Bridge Residency! I’m grateful to be connected with Innisfree McKinnon and I look forward to seeing where our conversations about maps lead us. I also love the fact that the SciArt residency emphasizes process (and the documentation of this process on the resident blog) and not on a specific product. Although a particular work of art (or multiple works of art) might come out of this residency, the mere act of having an ongoing conversation and reflectively writing about that conversation will lead to unknown territory.
My website: www.kareykessler.com
This residency produces an interesting tension in me because I have an ambiguous relationship with science. I have a strong interest in science and background in it, my undergraduate degree is in environmental science, which in practice means that I was trained by ecologists. And yet, I went searching for other perspectives as I launched into my graduate school career, ending up in geography with a strong emphasis on urban and regional planning and landscape architecture.
My interest in science, like many scientists’, stems from a deep feeling of wonder at the beauty of the natural world. As a young person, I hoped that my position as a scientist would allow me to speak with authority, that I didn’t feel, about the need for conservation. Through further study, I began to realize, that in many ways, the scientific or technical solutions are easy. Today, although scientists are always learning more about climate change and its impacts, the need for action to reduce our emissions is very clear. The problem isn’t knowing what we need to do, it is doing it. Understanding why we aren’t taking the needed actions moves us from a need to understand environmental or natural systems to a need to understand human systems including culture, politics, economics, and psychology.
I view environmental or conservation issues through a broad lens. I worked for about a decade as a science educator, pushing for people to understand, and love, science and through science, the world. Yet it is clear that science isn’t enough. So, I have searched in social sciences and in design fields for different skills, approaches, and ways of thinking that will help us build a better world. And that is where I found geography.
In the U.S., understanding of geography, as a field of study, is very low. The public mostly thinks of memorization of capitals, but geography was environmental studies before environmental studies was a topic of interest. It is a truly interdisciplinary field which has given me training in science, but also social theory, and cartographic design. It is only in the last few years, as I have met and interacted with people from other academic fields, that I realize how lucky I was to stumble on a field that allows for so much interdisciplinary thinking and training. I have colleagues (and friends) who are geomorphologists, and feminist glaciologists, landscape architects, and urban planners. Unfortunately, I think that kind of cross-disciplinary collaboration can be rare, yet so needed.
So, what I’m saying is that I often don’t think of myself as a “real scientist” and yet, my career has led me back to science. I teach largely in an environmental science program and my research is more and more about how scientists and other stakeholders can work together both to understand the world and to envision a better world. And that is one place that I see art (and design) making a huge contribution. Scientists work to understand the world as it is, but through creativity, we see how it could be.
Looking forward to exploring these tensions with Karey.