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These maps look real. But look again.

A lot of people have maps hanging on their walls. But normally, they’re actual maps of the world. Boston-based artist Emily Garfield has other things on her mind, though, as she creates her miniature maps reminiscent of ancient towns, strange islands and barren countryside.

“They aren’t based on actual places,” she explains. “And I don’t visualise an actual or even an imagined place when I create them.”


Are these actually maps, then? It’s a philosophical question. Some would stick to a strict definition of a map as a visualisation of a place, and conclude that they’re not. But we have maps of imaginary places, like Middle Earth, so they don’t have to be of places that really exist. Others would say that if it looks like a map, then that’s enough.

I’m not sure, but Emily calls them maps, so I’m happy to accept that.

Surreal beginnings

“I started drawing maps as I neared the end of college about six years ago,” Emily says.

“I’d been studying the strange architectural spaces created by some of the surrealists. Speculative cities, like those created by de Chirico. They’re reminiscent of places you’ve seen or been, but you know they aren’t those places.”

“My maps have a similar approach. People often say they remind them of somewhere they know, but they couldn’t say exactly where. I really want people to find their own places in my maps. That’s one reason I name them in a pretty abstract way [Sepia Lines, Angular, Composite 2]. I don’t want to tie down people’s interpretations when they look at them.”

“They are spaces that is unfinished enough that you can insert yourself inside it. Find your own story.”


Angular Angular


“Peoples’ ideas of beauty vary enormously the world over, but one of the things that people from lots of different cultures apparently agree on is the beauty of fractal patterns. You’ll see elements of those kinds of design in my maps, too.”

A closer look

Most mapmakers work on a large scale. Smartphone apps notwithstanding, bigger is often better when it comes to maps. Emily differs from other mapmakers here, too, preferring to work in miniature.

“Most of my works are around nine by twelve inches or less,” she says.

“I want people to get close to images when they looking at them, and making them smaller is one way to do that. That way, people are looking at the image almost exactly the same way that I was when I was creating them.”


Cityspace #199 (detail) Cityspace #199 (detail)


On a recent holiday in Iceland the landscape and vegetation had a resonance.

“There were these tiny plants that looked like plants I would recognise, but different enough to make you look twice. They had the same uncanny valley feel to them – things that are very similar to real objects but there’s something just slightly off about them that makes them slightly unnerving.”

“I think looking at the earth from planes also has a connection with my art. People love to do that. To find the roads. Imagine what all the tiny people are doing. Make their own stories. The pleasure might be connected to a feeling of power.”

Computers as paintbrushes

Emily is now working with fractals again for a new project: “I’m trying to teach myself Processing – a language for coding computer graphics. I want to explore how to create images algorithmically, Algorithmic art gives me the ability to duplicate patterns almost endlessly, and work in a scale that's different from the small, absolute scale that I'm used to.”

It’s reminiscent of the way it’s so much fun to look at a here.com satellite map and zoom in, and keep zooming in until you feel you can pick out the people. Maybe it would even better if you could keep on zooming, like the Eames film Power of Ten.

All images copyright Emily Garfield. Reproduced with permission.

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