I’ve always had a keen sense of direction. Before the days of GPS, I bragged I could always find my way to any destination through instinct alone. Consulting a map was a downright defeat. I was worse than my husband when it came to getting lost and refusing to stop for directions. I’d just keep driving around until the way “felt right”.
My sense of direction was honed at an early age and usually involved situations with my father. His idea of a 2 week vacation was driving 500 miles a day cross country and camping each night with two sullen teens in the backseat (my brother and I). On those trips, maps became a source of entertainment for me and provided an alternative to jumping out of the car window from sheer boredom. At least the trip could be broken down into small endless one inch increments with the highlight of intermittent rest areas to break the monotony.
I began to use maps in my art work several years ago when I was trying to solve a dilemma of painting a toucan’s large beak and keeping it interesting. I decided collaging an antique map of the toucan’s homeland underneath the bird might work. I was thrilled to find a picture of a small section of a South American map drawn in the 1600’s. It was intricately drawn and beautifully embellished. Adding the map really enhanced the bird and helped to ground him within his story of origin.
Last year when thinking of how to paint my selection for River, a book illustrated by Orange County Artists Guild members, I came up with several ideas of how to create texture as an under-painting for the design. Each idea I experimented with overpowered my image. Finally I thought, why not use a map of the Haw River? After all, the Haw was inspiration for the book in the first place. I found a picture of a map of the river basin and surrounding areas of Virginia, North Carolina, and South Carolina drawn in 1781. Using the map as an under-painting worked beautifully to subtly tell the Haw’s story without overpowering the design.
The past couple of years, I have used nautical maps (called charts in maritime language) as part of under-paintings for a body of work featuring Cape Lookout and Shackleford Bank, North Carolina. I love all the circles and grids contained in a nautical chart. I am especially drawn to the symbol used by the chart’s author, NOAA (the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), which reminds me of a seagull silhouetted by a setting sun. I’ve used this symbol so often that my friends tell me I don’t need to sign my paintings anymore. They see the NOAA symbol and know it’s my work.
For someone who has bragged (a lot) about not needing a map, I seem to rely on them all the time now in my paintings. They are a source of beauty and inspiration to me. Whenever I ask myself how I can make a painting idea interesting, when all else fails I use a map.