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The art of emotional cartography
Mumbai and Connecticut are almost 12, 500 kilometres apart on a map. But for Connie Brown, a map artist on the other side of the planet, conventional place names on a sheet criss-crossed by borders and boundaries mean little.
Brown, a Connecticut-based map maker who transforms voyages of any kind into visual treats, anything and everything deserves a place on a map - from momentous journeys to personal pilgrimages, from rites of passage to historical biographies. Calling herself a map artist, the 61-year-old has, over the past 20 years, mapped physical areas, treks, road trips, family migrations, historic districts and life histories for individuals and public art projects.
One of Brown's first projects on India was of parts of western India, when her son, Gregory Neustaetter, was in college and in Mumbai for a summer job in 1998. She wanted to commemorate his visit and surprise him with the map from Gujarat through Pune to Mumbai. Her second one was of a tiger reserve in India in 2004 for Carol Amore, a documentary film-maker who was making a film and writing a book about photographing tigers. "Because Carol really liked Greg's map, I used the same border, a border I found in a seminal 19th century British design compendium by Owen Jones called The Grammar of Ornament. Carol hand-annotated a printed map of the tiger reserve to reflect her experience and discoveries there, which I used as the basis for my map, " says Brown. Much like dots on a map, Brown also connects one client for another. For Amore's map, Brown got another adventurous client of her, who had visited that particular reserve, to clarify some locations within the reserve.
Brown is fascinated with India's design heritage. "One of the reasons I wanted to make Gregory's map is that no one had commissioned one of India. A lot of my designs for that came from books on the 19th century, the Victorian empire. One of my favourite books has a huge section on India. And even before I went there, I kept looking at that section. " says Brown, who spends a lot of time at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York looking at Indian art to get a sense of colour and design background.
In the course of her career, Brown has made maps on civil wars, a pilot's trip from Nantucket to Cape Town, an antique car rally, a family's summer vacation and a wedding week in Europe. She sees her maps as visual biographies. Recounting an early commissioned project of a couple which had adopted a baby girl in China and had gone to pick her up, she says, "That was a pilgrimage. I had to convey its momentousness, the fact that the destination was very important. " The map artist says it was from then that she realised she was "mapping profound experiences", including genealogical maps and maps for parents or grandparents who survived the Holocaust and came to the US. "It's humbling to see the wide range of human experience, " she says.
Brown, who does not have an art degree, says she was always attracted to "utilitarian art such as the look of books, typefaces and fonts, lettering styles and scientific art like diagrams, charts, botanical drawings and maps". Her tryst with maps began when she started doing art works based on scientific art in collaboration with another painter, where every now and then there would be a map to draw. When she was 40, Brown went on a hiking trip to the Pyrenees and wanted to map the mountain range on a canvas. "I could picture it. It would look a little bit like Vermeer. I told my guide about this and he said he would mark it on a map. But I just couldn't get a map of the Pyrenees. When I finally got one and unfolded it, I realised how little I knew about maps. I didn't even realise that they were in different scales. If I had known the depth of my ignorance then, I wouldn't have had the courage to proceed, " she says.
When she began, it was tough. She spent months looking at maps, cartouches, map borders and scales. Today, she makes three kinds of maps-property, travel and biographical. Her process of drawing these maps involves several layers from personal visits to poring over piles of documentation, doing interviews and gathering an amazing collection of various items from the places. "I ask a client to tell me everything about the trip;obviously it was meaningful to her and she wants to sanctify it in a map to commemorate it. And I need to convey the meaning. So I listen to the person talking about the experience so that I am not imposing my own sense of the trip. "
Brown also uses embellishments like photographs and actual objects from a trip in her maps. "Many want me to depict Nature, animals, plants so they send me things like feathers, " says Brown. She takes an average of 200 hours to finish a map of three by four feet. Brown compares the process to communicating, to writing an essay, which has to be persuasive: "I need to have an argument. I am trying to convey the beauty of the trip, using these concrete examples to convince. "
Although the maps may look like paintings, Brown has customised her drawing techniques according to her needs. She uses acrylic paint because oil takes too long to dry and adds a matte medium so that the pigment is suspended in the medium, making it translucent, which yields the look that she wants. "I apply that paint and rub it slightly, " she says. "I do the painting first. I apply acrylic as a wash and then I make the whole map. I use watercolour pens for place names and when it is all done, I coat it with a kind of amber colour as just a layer over the entire map which kind of 'antiques' it. "
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