Mapmaker, Mapmaker, Draw Me My Life

Freelance writer Jenna Schnuer thinks mapmaker Connie Brown is one of the most creative map geeks she has ever come across–and, really, she means that as the ultimate compliment. 

Twenty years ago, when Connie Brown decided to become an art mapmaker (sans formal cartographic training), she didn’t have an inkling of how difficult it would be to put “places on a two-dimensional plane and deliver clarity without chaos. Making it beautiful is the easiest part.” Despite her “profound ignorance,” Brown’s maps are some of the most interesting–and beautiful–I’ve ever come across. They blend art, science, and storytelling.

Working under the company name of Redstone Studios, Brown translates her clients’ travels, lives, businesses, and interests (marathon running, antique cars, even dung) into hand-painted maps on canvas. “It’s safe to say you can map any aspect of your life,” says Brown.

But it takes time to translate the stories into maps. “I draw and draw and draw [mostly freehand]. Almost everything ends up in the wastebasket. The right answer is there. It’s not some big burst, it’s a stream that sits underground a lot of times.” Along with her clients

time, words, and ideas, Brown relies on a mix of tools ancient and modern for the planning stage: commercial and property maps, Google maps “in all their variations,” rulers, proportional scales, and pencils.

Once Brown has the map planned out, which, she adds, is the truly time-consuming portion of the job, it takes another 140 hours (or so)

to complete the piece. After getting an enlargement made by an architectural printer, Brown traces the map she developed onto the canvas. It’s all freehand from there, lettering included. To add color, she prefers a “finicky” technique of brushing on and rubbing off acrylic paints. Brown loves the look of the transparent wash and “it’s a good background for place names.” For water, she goes all Seurat on the maps. “I paint a gazillion little dots, inspired by the stippled maps of the 16th and 17th centuries,” says Brown. “I love the color part, and I get a little too excited when I stumble on a new shade.”

Along with individual clients–including the ones featured here–Brown has created maps for non-profits like The Beacon Institute and companies including New Haven, CT’s New Alliance Bank. Her custom-drawn maps start at $5,000 for a 24″x30″ piece. The standard size, 3’x4′, starts at $10,000. 

Interested in commissioning a map detailing your own adventures? Now is a great time to get in touch with Brown. Though she’s got 2010 fairly well mapped out–sorry, had to go there–the recession cut some of the heft out of her waiting list. 

To get an earful of Brown (and, really, you want to), go to the New York Public Library on April 10 at 2:30. Brown’s New York Map Society-sponsored talk, “Breaking Borders,” will focus on the creative use of maps and mapmaking.

The back story on four of Brown’s maps, after the jump.

Angus Carroll’s Equator Map (Above)
Created for map and Darwiniana collector Angus Carroll–“he should have been born in the 19th century”–this map is based on the work of 16th c. Flemish cartographer Abraham Ortelius. It details Carroll and his wife’s around-the-equator trip to view exotic animals. “One note from Carroll said ‘Orangutan: Gistok.’ I thought that must be a kind of orangutan,” says Brown. “I couldn’t find it. I finally emailed him. He said that was the animal’s [first name].” Adds Brown, who credits her clients with giving her a lot of her creative ideas, Carroll “was one of the wittiest collaborators I’ve ever had.”

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Charlie Owen’s Bicycle Map
Brown credits cyclist outfitter Jennifer Sage (, who plotted Charlie Owen’s spinning adventures along Tour de France routes, with doing “all the heavy lifting” by providing annotated maps and answering “the inevitable detail questions.” But there were more than a few challenges left for Brown to figure out.

Commissioned as a 50th birthday gift by Charlie’s wife Eleanor, the routes forced Brown to explore ways to really make the mountains pop off the page: “Contours are difficult for viewers to grasp. Shading is more difficult to use for the mapmakers. [The finished map] is kind of impressionistic.”

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Gary Clarke’s Africa Map
A meeting at the Explorers Club set this one in motion. Having led 139 photo safaris to Africa, zoologist Gary K.

Clarke (formerly the director of the Topeka Zoo) wanted his map surrounded by images, a map style common in the 17th century. He made it clear to Brown that he didn’t just want the pretty animals. “There are some ugly creatures here: the striped hyena, the dung beetle (on a ball of dung), and the vulture,” says Brown. There’s a dung chart, too.

That in itself was a challenge. “There are surprisingly few really good pictures of dung on the Internet,” says Brown.

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Burrito Map
Her son Greg, then 29, had recently introduced her to the “My Maps” plotting feature on Google maps. “He suggested that it would [even] allow me to map his favorite burrito joints, and I took him at his word,” says Brown. “I had radial maps in my head; they seem the most primal, symbolic kind of map. And yet–here’s the beauty and elasticity of maps–perfect for burrito joints!” Wondering about those Korean characters at the bottom? They’re a nod to Greg’s wife, who is Korean. The translation: “I love burritos.”

Jenna Schnuer wrote about Icy Strait Point, Alaska for the July/August 2007 National Geographic Traveler, and is co-founder and co-writer of U.S. travel site Flyover America. Map images courtesy of Connie Brown.