Landscapes as “Maps”

“A map is a theory…a different way to look at the world, a different way to grasp its meaning…The Landscape is just such a subject….The most distinctive quality of artmaking is the investment of the artist’s own humanity in the finished piece.” Ted Orland, The View From the Studio Door, 2006

I wrote this article below on my travel blog, in January, 2005, a little more than three months before my father died….

“I learned my love of maps from my father. He, a World War II pilot and also a painter; I, his  firstborn.

I spent my early years as his navigator. We drove from our small town into the central Ohio countryside, where he painted landscapes in watercolors. He didn’t need maps then, of course – this territory was familiar to him. But it was a big new world to me. I used maps to see where we were going, and he would talk about how they opened worlds to him as he flew across the U.S. or the Pacific or into the “China-Burma theater” during the war.

Through the eyes of an artist, I learned how maps are more than lines on flat pieces of paper. Clearly maps can get you there and back. But our day trips also nurtured my ability to use maps more intuitively.

Dad “mapped” what he saw. He held up a pencil to the horizon line, measuring the distance to the focal point, plotting the perspectives, and taking a visual snapshot. He transformed the sights before him onto wet paper in washes of color. If the blue was wrong, he’d wash it away and make it truer. The green-golds would blend and merge in dabs. A cloud appeared and found its way to the canvas. And if the colors changed, and the result was visually inauthentic to the moment, he’d make it disappear – and start over.

He was a literal painter. He saw the surface of things and painted with taut, hushed, discreet emotion. Yet his ability to see things just as they are, unvarnished, real, and with a deeper truth behind them, taught me how to really see.

In this way, the maps and the watercolors started working together for me. The surface of things always suggests a deeper story. What’s below the surface in his paintings may have been left to the viewer’s imagination, but there is no refuge from it. You can try to change what others see all you want – wash it away like a watercolor technique – but you cannot change what lies beneath. I became a journalist. I penetrated the story behind the surface. I expressed it differently from my dad, but with the same goal – clarity of vision and exploration of truth.

Which gets me back to maps. To me, maps are linear expressions of worlds beyond. They create the networks, connect the dots. They tell you if you’ll be up high or down low, whether you might get wet crossing a river or breathless climbing a mountain. They are finite in their surface information but encourage infinite exploration. They hint but do not scream – and it’s up to you to accept their invitation and just go.

I always start out with a map. Before a vacation, I load up. Or, once in a new town, as a visitor or as a resident, I head straight to a bookstore or AAA. This sometimes drives my companions crazy, but for me, it’s a secure foundation for the journey. Sometimes maps are pure efficiency, pointing to a destination in the fastest way. Other times they offer scenic pleasure, taking the longest way to go the shortest distance via exhilarating and beautiful journeys.

With a map in hand, I can concentrate on the full experience of the adventure because the logistics are taken care of. I study the maps, get a mental picture and take off. A train ride at age 23 north through Sweden inside the Arctic Circle, a 10-day car trip through the Four Corners mysteries of the Southwest, a five-freeway adventure to a mall in Los Angeles. After the trip, I look at the map again and review where I’ve been. I remember the experience, and make course corrections for the next time.

Today I often fly coast to coast across the U.S.  I look out the window and study the roads and trails that meander across the plains and through the valleys, the sweep up the mountains and reflections from the lakes and rivers. The topography creates its own map, the natural light spectrum washes the colors across the landscape. I explore it all mentally.

My dad, now in his 80s, doesn’t fly anymore. So when I visit him, we sit at the kitchen table and review my adventures. We pull out the maps, piled on the shelf next to his reading material, and talk about what I last saw, where I’m next going. He visualizes the experiences, the lines of the map clear, the imaginary horizon line unifying the perspective, the details of the picture filling in for him.”

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