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She thinks outside the map

A map mentioned in Katharine Harmon’s book.

Eric Fischer

A map mentioned in Katharine Harmon’s book.

Katharine Harmon is an expert on the topic of creative maps. Her just-published book “You Are Here NYC: Mapping the Soul of the City” features more than 200 maps spanning four centuries. Harmon, who lives in Seattle, also has written “You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination” and “The Map as Art: Contemporary Artists Explore Cartography.” Unrelated to maps, her great-grandfather was state Senator Edward C. Stone, who represented Cape Cod and the Islands for many years.

Q How did you become interested in map art?

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A I used to spend all my summers on Cape Cod — my grandparents had a house in Osterville. I love how when people ask you where something is on the Cape, your arm becomes the map, with the tip of your finger Provincetown, and you point to where you are. It would be cool to do that photographically. Anyway, on those rainy summer days, I would explore all the bookshelves, and one year I discovered John Held Jr., an illustrator especially famous for flapper girl imagery. He also did these fantastic maps, like “Map of Americana” and “A Dog’s Idea of the Ideal Country Estate.” That kind of humor and irreverence from what a map is “supposed” to be completely opened my mind up to maps and how they could be so creative.

Q Are you also fond of traditional maps?

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A I appreciate them and need them, because I’m really directionally challenged, but I’m not necessarily good at reading them. What I really love is the artistry of maps. But even with conventional wayfinding maps, just thinking about what people put in and what people leave out, a map always gives some kind of truth.

Q How did you first come to write a book about map art?

A I started to collect creative maps from when I was young. When I had a file that was starting to bulge, I started a book on it.

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Q What do you think appeals to people about maps?

A Obviously maps are very dear to a lot of people, because my first book struck such a chord. I think on some level of consciousness, self-location is important to us humans. It can be fun to be lost, but there’s a certain level of anxiety to being lost for long. It’s reassuring to look at a map that says “you are here,” while dislocation causes discomfort. I think contemporary artists play with that idea a lot.

Q Why did you focus on New York?

A In doing my research and going through databases, it became obvious fairly quickly that New York has generated a very rich world of maps. As I say in the book’s intro, people all over the world know and even take pride in New York even if they’ve never been.

Q How has technology changed artistic maps?

A The availability of data has given creative mappers a lot to play with. I especially notice that with New Yorkers. Like Eric Fischer, who traced routes using Twitter geotags or Vincent Meertens, who with his girlfriend tracked everywhere they went for 10 months. He mapped that with colored data points and the image is really beautiful.

Q What are your favorite types of maps?

A I really love conceptual maps. I love that someone walked around and collected trash and made a giant map of found paper and that becomes a city block on a map. I love the map “I Found Your Mitten.” Summer Bedard started it and people send her pictures of lost mittens with their location. I also love the ones where people are out on the streets, using the map as artifact of an experience they created around a map. Like Yumi Roth, who asks people on the street to suggest places to go and has them draw maps on her hand, which she then uses to ask directions from others. Or Nobutaka Aozaki, who asks for directions from people to a city landmark. They pull out their phones, but he has them put it on a piece of paper. He’s making a map assemblage using the scraps of paper, and also communicating about smartphones.

Q How do you feel about the decline of the paper map?

A When I go to a new city, I like to look at a paper map and get an overall view, so I know the sense of the city and can visualize the different areas. But my daughter, for example, now that she’s driving, she’ll rely on her phone for getting from place to place and even if it’s somewhere she goes all the time, she doesn’t know how without her phone. The human interaction is missing too. You used to stop and ask people for directions. Now you just ask the phone.

Diane Daniel can be reached at diane@bydianedaniel.com.
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