Interview by Monica Surfaro Spigelman
Is this intricate fantasy city called Solera your vision of utopia? When and why did you begin this mapping? How does it apply to your professional folklorist world (and your personal world)?
I grew up in a family that traveled a lot, and when they did, I often received their maps, travel brochures, and hotel directories as small souvenirs. (It was from the latter that I first heard about Tucson!) They print so many of those things, that they often get tossed, but as a six-year old, I thought they were the best gift I could receive. I would read atlases, and think about the types of adventures that I could have. As a result, I gained a pretty strong knowledge of cities, countries, highways, and landmarks; in many ways, it really set the tone for being involved in an organization that focuses on creative placemaking.
In addition to reading, I also drew my own. Certain atlases had the shapes of cities, and not just the location, and I used to think about what my world would look like. It became a hobby, and one that I continued for most of my childhood, but I grew very self-conscious about it as a teenager, and stopped for several years.
In college, however, I returned to it, albeit unexpectedly. In addition to my folklore courses, I took a few courses in geography, and I grew to love my geographic methods course, where I learned about GPS, remote sensing, and — one of my favorites — aerial photography. It was fascinating to see the world from above. At the age of 21, I took a summer course in permaculture design, where we were strongly encouraged to map out our ideal homes, landscapes, and communities. I started drawing out a city based on permaculture ideals, which I named Solara; from there, it grew into an entire country, which I named Paikema.
The name comes from the Estonian päike maa, “land of the sun.” I took Estonian courses in college, and spent my final semester of my undergrad in Estonia. While there, I managed to purchase several local maps, and I noticed that they were highly detailed; not only could you find the streets and landmarks, but also the outline of each building, whether it was an apartment building or a church. I’ve found these maps to be the most inspiring, and they serve as a model for my drawings.
There are certainly folklorists interested in mapping. For example, Henry Glassie, a scholar with whom I had a chance to study at Indiana University, is well-known for his maps and sketches. One of my fellow colleagues in Newfoundland, folklorist and author Emily Urquhart, created a stunning set of drawings for her fieldwork on the Bonavista Peninsula. There is a lot of artistic freedom for those who wish to include this type of work.
Folklorists are so interested in the worlds that people create for themselves, and how they make sense of their lives. There are a lot of folklorists who are interested in imagined communities, nostalgia, and sense of place, and I eventually realized that, if we can study how people shape their world, why can’t I create one for myself? After all, I am part of many folk groups; being a professional folklorist doesn’t exempt me from having my own folklife.
Please highlight a few elements of your maps, including road maps symbols and legends. Anything you want to say about the creative process and the tools used?
I draw from actual places for some of my drawings. I have based maps off of major cities such as Helsinki and Pittsburgh, as well as smaller cities in other places, such as Canada and Estonia. I have designed my own communities, both small and large; there are drawings of small farming towns alongside larger cities.
In terms of place names, I have created the basics of a language called Paiken, which derives from the languages of places I have lived, or visited; it’s a work in progress, but it is currently a mix of Estonian, Norwegian, French, and Spanish. I do base places off of places around me, and Paikenize the names; for example, Tucson became Tizona, and Ajo became Ajámai.
Originally, I was drawing on a basic lined notebook, using a Bic inkpen and a set of Crayola colored pencils. Eventually, I graduated to a set of brush pens, a pack of Prismacolor pencils, and a sketchpad. It takes a few hours to draw a more complicated sketch, while others can be done in less than an hour. I tend to sketch things out on my lunch break, on the bus home, or after my daughters have gone to bed.
Will you comment about the importance of personal geographies in a folklorist’s world?
Personal geographies aren’t just important to folklorists, but to people in all fields. We map our own landscapes on a daily basis; we do it through the stories we tell, through the place-based knowledge that we learn and share among others, and through our creative practices. Songs are a major indicator of personal geographies; you see a person’s sense of place emerge in corridos as much as you see them in a country song.
Why maps are important to documenting culture?
If you think about why people use maps, it is often to gain a sense of familiarity with a place, to find directions to a place, or to understand how places exist in relation to one another. Folklorists do ethnography to document a place, or a community, through its folklife; we interview people, participate in cultural practices, and document traditions. Those stories, images, and experiences add context; in reality, ethnography is really an act of mapping, one that tells us about a place, creates familiarity with a place, and helps us to understand how people and places exist in relation to one another.
Another thing to consider is that there are many subcultures who use maps as part of their activities; one of them, called “roadgeeks,” who collect road maps, spend their time travelling certain routes, or make a hobby out of spotting certain features in a highway, such as a wrong-way concurrency (a route that is simultaneously north- and southbound). Some people look for an unusual place name, such as Truth or Consequences; my wife and I are fond of the Quebec town Saint-Louis-du-Ha!-Ha!.
Update: August 13, 2020
When we come up with imagined geographies and landscapes in my online courses, I tell kids that these worlds are a reflection of who we are, but also a reflection of the kind of world we hope to be a part of. Even in a fantastical world, one cannot go without thinking realistically, and it’s okay to create a world that has conflict, because otherwise the world will not grow and evolve. Creating those worlds gives us the capacity to think about what we might do to make that world better, which helps us think about how to make our own world better. What we include or omit says a lot about our worldview. By drawing both imagined and personal worlds, I have learned a lot about myself during this time. So much of the learning comes through just grabbing a pen and starting somewhere. The fun comes when you run out of space and you look down at the paper, and you’ve suddenly created an entire town or landscape. Then you can dive in further and create stories for each building, each block, each county. Thinking small and thinking big at the same time is possible.
- Nic recommends: For anyone who’d like to read about cartophiles — people who really like maps — Mike Parker’s book Map Addict tells a lot about map collectors, as well as how maps have changed over the years. http://www.mikeparker.org.uk/mapaddict.html
- Explorations in Mixed Media mapmaking: Personal Geographies by Jill K. Berry
http://jillberrydesign.com/ or http://personal-geographies.com/
- Mapping the Invisible Landscape: Folklore, Writing, and the Sense of Place (American Land & Life) by Kent C. Ryden: http://www.uiowapress.org/books/pre-2002/rydmapthe.htm