Like a lot in the evolution of Steady Hand Maps, creating personalized map gifts kind of fell into my lap. A friend of a friend had seen one of my city maps hanging at their house. They liked it so much, they reached out to me about creating a map of their grandmother’s house. Her grandmother had just passed and this person had so many great memories there, she wanted to remember it through what I later started calling a “mini map.” I focused on the cross streets of her home, drawing the elements that came to mind when my client thought of her grandmother’s house. It seemed like a small task, but I later began to realize how meaningful these little drawings were to others.

A year later, I’ve been creating a number of “mini maps” and some not-so-mini maps to celebrate anniversaries, engagements, birthdays, travels and more. People often ask me about my process and how I manage to personalize these maps, despite not really knowing my clients very personally.

Personalized Maps Get Personal

To start, I would say it is my uncanny ability to ask people really probing questions without invading their privacy too much. I’d like to think that people feel like they can trust me. Part of it is that I am so genuinely interested in the minute details of our lives that make them so individually spectacular. Usually, we see timelines and biographies of famous, rich and notorious people. But what about the rest of us? Do we not all have remarkable stories that make us who we are? I challenge you to find an individual who has had a life as even and straight as a ruler.

A mini-map celebrating this client’s home together

I want to know what your most dominant memory is of a place. Was there a tree or flower or plant that made you realize you were home? What was something that made you realize this was the place you wanted to live? Or ask someone to get married? Or choose to raise a family? What was something funny or unusual that happened when you first met your future partner? What did you have to drink or eat? Questions like these sometimes open the floodgates. I assume that if the person has come to me, they are passionate enough about this person or event or place to decide to commemorate it. I just have to figure out why that is.

So even though we’re making a map about a place, we’re really mapping your experience.

Tracking a Life from Place to Place

detail of a custom property map of the Bracy Estate by Jen Urso
Detail of a custom property map of the Bracy Estate by Jen Urso

Creating a map that tracks a larger span of a person’s life can be a little trickier. I tend to ask all the same questions but now we’re stretching across both time and space. How do significant (and not so significant but memorable) events fit in together chronologically? In whatever form I’m mapping, even in more conceptual, art-driven pieces, I’m trying to order the chaos. Or sometimes it’s mapping the absolute complexity of something that seems fairly mundane, like a street corner you’ve seen a thousand times.

Often, I’ll have my clients start with a general timeline of events that they absolutely want to include. Along with that, there are the absolute must-haves of locations: homes, workplaces, favorite coffee shops, bike routes, parks, hikes and more. What of all these things speaks the most to how someone identifies as themselves? Once we really sit down and start thinking about it, it can be a bit overwhelming. Like, WHO AM I and WHAT HAVE I BEEN DOING MY WHOLE LIFE?? Sometimes, we have to enact covert operations to do some digging on the map gift recipient. This part makes you also realize how much you DON’T know about someone you have spent years with!

Secretly Enjoying All of This

A custom birthday map by Jen Urso
Celebrating 40 year’s of this client’s fiance’s life

To be honest, this never gets boring. People, always, are interesting. Our lives and the paths we take, physically and metaphorically, are biased and influenced by a plethora of inputs. Maybe we stay close to one place to take care of a family member or travel the world to satisfy our curiosities. On one of the personalized map gifts I make, one of your personalized folk stories might emerge about an object you own or an impactful experience you had a block from your home.

If your grandmother feeds the pigeons on the street in front of her house every day for years, that becomes part of what that place is. If riding that rollercoaster on the Jersey shore is the first time you realized how vast and magical the ocean is, that memory is now illustrating that place on the map. What an incredible thing to be able to share these memories and places with the people I create maps for.

Starting Personalized Map Gifts

I love working with new people to create gift maps that mean something special to them. If you think you’d like to dive into this world, start writing down dates, locations and memories. I sometimes find it useful to create a Pinterest board of reference images (like, what does a maple tree look like or the logo of your loved one’s favorite restaurant). You could put all of this into a Word doc or Excel file—however you like to organize your chaos.

I usually start by having a short Zoom meeting with my clients to talk about some general ideas. That might be who it’s for, where it’s located, how many points of interest you’d like to include or other general details. Then, I do a VERY rough sketch which is more like a general layout so I can make sure that what I’m hearing is what you’re saying.

From there, it’s a bit of back and forth to finalize what you’d like to include. I may ask for reference images for some things I can’t find on my own. That might even include you going out and taking some pictures yourself. Since a lot of the maps I create are for people who aren’t local, I may need you to be my eyes. Google Street View shows a lot but not if you’re in a rural area. Plus, Google maps can sometimes be very outdated.

SHMapping Time

And that’s it! With all that information, I get started drawing personalized map gifts in pencil. Depending on the complexity of the map, I could have it ready in days or weeks. Once you approve the pencil version, I get to inking it and adding color, if that’s your thing. Then I can create an archival print or send you high-resolution files so you can print it yourself. Ready to get started? Contact me on Instagram, Facebook or my website. Then, I’ll get shmapping.