• Katsushika, Hokusai, 1760-1849, artist, [between 1804 and 1818] 1 print : woodcut, color ; 23.2 x 17.2 cm.

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  • Katsushika, Hokusai, 1760-1849, artist, [between 1804 and 1818] 1 print : woodcut, color ; 23.2 x 17.2 cm.
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The Medium of Maps: Art, Textiles, Maps, and Data

Author: Cate Cooney

What stories can we tell with maps?

If you’ve been listening to NPR in the mornings lately, like I have, then you know they are covering the 10th anniversary of the 2008 financial crisis. I was thinking about how to understand the effects of the mortgage crisis on neighborhoods, and how art could be used to communicate how areas were affected. While photographs of boarded up homes or a street full of for-sale signs might tell a story, I was interested in finding more abstract, or less literal objects to analyze.

A textiles curator friend pointed me to Kathryn Clark. Clark was an architect and designer, working on planning New Urbanist neighborhoods from 1994-2004. When the foreclosure crisis hit, she felt she had to make art about it, to communicate the severity of what would happen to the urban fabric. She turned to the craft tradition of quilts, those quintessentially American emblems of thrift and resourcefulness. You can see one of her quilts in the Smithsonian American Art Museum https://americanart.si.edu/artwork/washington-dc-foreclosure-quilt-109954 and other examples on the artist's website: http://www.kathrynclark.com/foreclosure-quilts.html.

Foreclosure Quilt, 2015, linen, cotton, and recycled thread, Smithsonian American Art Museum, © 2015, Kathryn Clark, Museum purchase through the Stephen D. Thurston Memorial Fund, 2015.40

To make these quilts, she used RealtyTrac maps of cities as her source, cutting, rubbing, or pulling the fabric away, thread-by-thread to show the plots with foreclosed homes. The result is abstract, and affecting in its familiarity. Her work immediately brought to mind a fascinating primary source available through the Library of Congress: Sanborne Maps, such as this late 19th century one from Detroit.

Sanborn maps are fire insurance maps, which describe not only location, but shape, size, construction, and details such as windows and doors, roof types, sprinkler systems, etc. for dwellings and other structures so that the insurers could adequately judge the risk of loss by fire.

In this detail, you can see pastedowns, where corrections or additions were made, which echo the mendings on some of Clark’s quilts. (I have to announce with great joy that I created this detail using the Library's clip image tool -- so useful!) These pastedowns are an example of thrift, not dissimilar to the quilt tradition: rather than going through the expense of reprinting entire pages to show corrections or updates, the maps makers would simply add small glued-down bits of paper with the edits, putting them directly over the area to be changed, just as one would patch a frayed quilt block.

The Library of Congress has a significant collection of Sanborn maps, which have been digitized and made available at high resolution. Researchers use them for a huge variety of reasons, and the Library has provided an extensive guide available here: https://www.loc.gov/collections/sanborn-maps/about-this-collection/

 Tanvi Misra write a nice article about the interpretive possibilities of Sanborn Maps, available here: https://www.citylab.com/equity/2014/10/the-accidental-revelations-of-sanborn-maps/381262/

TAFA: The Textile and Fiber Art List wrote a short piece about textile maps on their blog. It has good images, including a nice detail for a Kathryn Clark piece, but not a lot of text: https://www.tafalist.com/mapping-the-world/.

I am intruiged by the possibilities of using fiber as a medium for understanding data. I am sure there's lots to be done with it, and am excited about the possibilities of weaving, knitting, felting, or sewing. 

    • Kathryn Clark, Washington, D.C.
    • Sanborne Maps
    • Sanborne Maps Detail
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