I am an artist/cartographer presently based in Melbourne, Australia. Born and raised in New Zealand, I hand-draw detailed maps with colour pencil and pen. As well as the mapmaking, I am passionate about sharing these ideas through writing and public speaking.
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Read on to learn the story of the North America map.
Origins of the map
Born in 1989 in Nelson, New Zealand, I have been in love with maps since I was little. Growing up in the landscapes of Aotearoa you are never short on geographic inspiration, and I started drawing maps very young.
As a kid I would obsessively draw coastlines, create pictorial maps for my own worlds, and cover my walls with maps. But it wasn’t until I left New Zealand at 21 that this passion started moving towards more than a hobby.
It was 2011, and I was trying to decide what to do with my life. At this point it revolved around playing guitar and song writing, while I cooked to pay the bills. I hadn't drawn a map in years. Caught between going to university or travelling, I chose to leave the country and head overseas.
A move to North America
A good friend was living it up in the Sierra Nevada, and I wanted to see more of the world. Saving all I could on kitchen wages, I flew one-way to the United States. As a 21 year-old geography-obsessed Kiwi, California was fairly overwhelming. Exploring a continent for the first time, I was astonished by the scale and variety. From deserts to Redwoods, towering mountains to metropolises, a whole new frontier of reality was opened.
And this was just one state! I set off across the country, getting lost in the great expanse of the USA, having all sorts of adventures. Once my savings ran out, I moved to Canada for a working holiday visa. The journey continued as a line cook in Vancouver, and then Montréal.
During these travels, my childhood map passion had a resurgence. I’d long imagined a huge pictorial map with immense detail, and this idea obsessed me as I moved around. Then in late 2012 while living in Montréal, I began sketching it out…
...on a fridge.
Cartography takes over
I’m not sure why I chose the old fridge in our apartment. We’d found it kerbside and it wasn't in great shape. It was also in constant use, next to a sink, cooking happening around it every day. But my housemate Douglas asked me to decorate it, and after a coat of white paint it looked ready for some map treatment.
For weeks I sat in front of the fridge with a pen, freehanding North America. And the western spine of South America. And an inset map of New Zealand… because, why not? I loved doing it, and swore I’d do something bigger when I had the chance.
That opportunity came the next year in Perth, Western Australia. I had left Canada and a new continent was home. A new ocean crashed into a new shore. I wanted to map that. Still working in kitchens, I set up in my bedroom and began work on a map. No refrigerator this time – it was paper, pen and colour pencils.
This new project quickly became an odyssey unlike any I’d undertaken. Turns out a huge pictorial map that includes India, China, Indonesia and Australia is not a simple job. For six months, all my free time was consumed by this map.
The North America map begins
South Asia & Australasia was an opportunity to really devote myself to something, and I found the work deeply compelling. I finished that map with far more experience, and all I could think was… what was next?
I moved to Melbourne after that, where I’ve been based ever since. It was mid-2014, and I began preparing the next project. Now I had learned colour pencils, I felt ready to take on North America again.
Using a projector, I traced out its coastlines and borders and began drawing. It was big: 1.5 x 1.2 metres (5 x 4 feet). I used a simple perspective projection, just Google Earth zoomed out. Predicting it'd take six months again, I got a part-time job at a local school and tackled the map in my spare time.
It progressed reasonably fast at first. But my skills kept improving, as did my mind for geography. I learned that no place could be rushed. Drawing real places comes with a responsibility you must take seriously. These aren’t just abstract pretty pictures, nor do you want them to be cartoony. You’re making art out of people’s homes! Places are complicated, and place is integral to who we are. It's hard to define right or wrong with map art, but you must proceed with care and patience.
The map grows
The map took over my life in an unprecedented way. I’d been immersed in things before, but nothing like this. I never dreamed a project could be so intensive. Thousands of hours were poured in as I drew from the Arctic to the tropics. All my free time was for the map. Sometimes I felt I was going mad, just stalking around in my own mind. All else became a distraction, a nuisance. There was only this giant map that would never end.
In early 2017, I completed all the land. Three years in, it should’ve been time to start the ocean. But I’d gained thousands of hours of practice on that one piece of paper, which meant that the earlier drawing became obsolete in style and substance.
I had to go back to the west coast where I began and redraw it completely. For well over a year I did this, scratching off hundreds of pen-outlined cities with a knife, until I had redrawn the western half of the USA and a huge area of western Canada.
Around the same time, I quit my day job and began visiting North America again. It started with attending NACIS 2016 in Colorado, after which I started giving frequent talks about the works. Since 2017, I have presented dozens of times, from elementary schools to Stanford University, National Geographic, The Washington Post, The New York Times, the map societies of Chicago, NYC and Boston, as well as conferences such as NACIS, GNSI, and the Tokyo ICC. Various videos of my presentations can be found here.
I was lucky to have found an extraordinary professional community after years of map hermitdom. Both the cartography and the science illustration worlds are filled with talented and passionate people.
Finally, in February of 2019, I finished the North America map. In an emotional final session I signed it off, then slumped back in my chair, dumbfounded. Never could I have imagined a single map taking almost five years. Sure, having a day job and redrawing vast sections made it drag on longer than such a project will next time. But it reshaped my world, and I loved drawing it despite the enormity.
After completion, in mid-2019 I went in a new direction and drew a series of maps and illustrations for The Washington Post. It was wonderful to complete a project in just a few weeks (rather than years)!
And finally in March 2020, I released the North America map in print which is available now. New (much smaller) maps are on the way, and I’m taking a break from gigantic continental maps for now. But, rest assured...
...there’ll be more continents.