Maps and charts were, and often still are, about ownership. It used to be that one of the main purposes for exploration was to map an area, to claim or take advantage of it. They were “uncharted lands” because they weren’t charted, or mapped, yet. Colonialist nations would set off in ships on voyages to map coastlines so they knew how to get there, what was there and whether they could conquer it.

Now, I’m often making maps of places I’ve never been.

Mapping Places from Memories

When I talk to people about making a custom map for them, we are mainly talking about memories. Our lives are tied to places, moments and the people we experience them with. Their map emerges from oral stories and memories. It’s a wish to put something in place in a way that thousands of photographs on social media cannot do. The map pulls a narrative together, showing a bigger picture that can give us some perspective.

Chicago Little Italy map by Jen Urso
Mapping an area of Little Italy in Chicago for Harris Point–a place I’ve never been to

The ability to access Google maps and Streetview is a huge advantage to me so that I don’t always have to physically be in the area I’m drawing. But, it’s not a failsafe. Depending on the area, Google doesn’t update their Streetview, sometimes for over 10 years. In some areas (maybe depending on your income bracket?) Streetview isn’t available at all. Instead, I’m dependent on my clients to be my eyes. From our initial contact, I go back and forth in order to know what is “real” compared to what’s available to me online. Sometimes, Google Maps is just plain wrong.

Mapping Places in Time

Chandler Dust Bowl Migrant Map by Jen Urso
Using historic photos, I recreated Dust Bowl-era Chandler, AZ, where numerous migrant camps formed

For several maps, I’ve had to research a business or a home address to see what it was like 20 years ago. Sometimes, the only way to do this is from a client’s old photo prints. How do you map a car that no longer exists in front of a house that’s been torn down? How do I show a home before AND after renovation without the help of their archive? There might be a toy from the 1970s that they always played with or a tall tree they used to climb that since has been cut down. The maps I create with my clients can be a way to recreate those memories and attachments.

All the Places and Memories All at Once

I’m fascinated with the freedom and license I have to create an amalgamation of place that crosses time and space. For many of my maps like the Cactus Map or Coffee Map, my direct experience with the place is what makes the map unique. For my clients, I often can’t have that direct connection. However, it isn’t about my direct experience. It’s about theirs. So often, I’m asking open-ended questions to try to get at that thing that maybe they don’t even know is there yet.

Sometimes, talking about the most obvious thing can be the most difficult. It seems so obvious; we forget to mention it. Like, OF COURSE, the thing you liked the most about that house in Washington was the view out your kitchen window. Or NATURALLY, you and your future partner just happened to like the same cocktail that you both ordered on your first date. Our memories are so rich and full of visual and sensory details. But, we usually hide them as mundane, taken-for-granted information, just for us.

The Little Things Are Big

I learned about this family’s incredible scotch collection on their vast property in the South.

I’ve had a lot of moments where I’m talking with a client and they mention something in passing. Then I jump all over it and ask them to tell me more about it. Almost every time, a great story comes along with it. Then, that statement and that story become the visual trigger that makes a place come alive on their map. It’s like I finally have that thing that conjures the memory for them and whoever the map is for.

I remember a client mentioning how he had hidden six gifts in the luggage of his soon-to-be wife when she took a long trip. That way, she could open one for every week she was gone. So, instead of drawing iconic landmarks from where she traveled, the icon for that place became a suitcase filled with presents. It was a reminder of a really touching sentiment that he continues to this day, whenever she travels.

Do You Know Which Way is Up?

So, how much is the map actually about these places? What it seems like I’m really doing is mapping their mind and memory. Then, we see how these memories layout in an aerial view of the abstract world that we’ve never actually seen for ourselves from that high-above view. The map could just as well be a cloud floating in front of us. Does it matter which way is East or South? From where you’re standing, do you intuitively know which way South is? But from where you’re standing, can you intuitively recall the memory of sitting on the beach on the most amazing vacation? Or what it looked like as you sat in the hospital room with your closest family member in their final moments? Or even where you stand at the bus stop to catch the shade of an old mesquite tree?

Questions I ask: “What are your favorite plants? What do you like best about that park?”

We know these things, without the need for a US map to show us where they happened. We KNOW where they are, how they felt and what it looked like even if we sometimes don’t know why we remember them so well. These are the things that form our lives.

And I am just here, listening to all of these interesting people talk and tell me about their journey. I’m trying to piece it all together. ANd, I hope that I get it close enough so that the thing I make becomes a part of their lives. So when our memories begin to fail, we can have that map as a trigger to pull the strings together. I may not be there physically to see the thing when they saw it and how they experienced it but I get to go there in my mind and create this thing—this weird thing—that takes them back to those moments.