I made this piece a number of years ago (in 2009?)–I know it was bright summer out on the porch of my last place (which itself narrows the time frame; in the few years I was there, we went from a three-season junk room filled with the detritus of roommates past to a months-long tarp-covered hole to an actual usable porch). A friend of a friend and I met up for an “art day” and I start playing around with a razor blade, a stapled stack of good-on-one-side paper, and some acrylic paints.

I’ve been surprisingly happy with how it turned out. The dark teal greys are steady favorite hues, in part because it’s hard NOT to love them when one lives in Minnesota with summer skies in these colors behind vibrant greens both pre- and post-thunderstorm, and in part because my personal taste has always run towards the industrial (a brother of mine likens my decorating tendencies to those of a war-mongering bureaucrat with a weakness for plants–it’s amazing how being told that by someone I love makes me sure it’s a compliment!). The bright yellow came out of a desire to punctuate those colors and topped other likely candidates: oranges, greens, and pinky reds. While I started painting on the stapled scratch paper mainly because I’m a cheap and cautious crafter who prototypes before committing to the pricier supplies, I ended up liking the way the staple made it a little easier to work on the piece and how the paint made the thin paper pucker, giving a bit of organic lift and movement to the layers. It worked well with an already-owned vintage metal frame, spray-painted white, and the curved glass allowed the piece to retain dimensionality.

In my current place, it hangs on the wall of my bathroom, which tends to the same color scheme (including a giant bright yellow drill bit–thanks, recycling bin!). In the bottom right of the photo is some sort of rustic weather vane thing that I hang jewelry from.

map cut art

Not long after I completed this, a friend of mine bought one of these awesome pieces by local artist Crafterall and I was thrown into that universal and none-too-pleasant experience of artists and designers in the age of the internet: did I (unintentionally) copy Crafterall? It was a bit of a moot point, as mine was a one-off creative exercise during a pleasant afternoon of creating and socializing, nothing I was planning on replicating for fame and profit, but it’s still the kind of thing that slithers into the stagnant pools of self-doubt to pop up like a bottom-dweller feasting on decaying matter out of the bottomless abyss of ill-advised late-night bouts of self-reflection and self-analysis.

I still am not sure. In my memory (and I certainly am aware of the wonderful but dangerous tendencies of adult minds in particular to retroactively prune narratives both to make sense of the world and to support our view of self), the piece came out of my background in geography, in particular a nostalgia for a certain Quaternary Landscape Evolution class wherein we spent hours poring over topographic maps in the library, learning to read the shapes left by glaciers and waves, wind and time. The professor was nearing retirement, a man whose passions weren’t just the grasses of the Midwest but specifically short-grasses (or long–I no longer recall), and that’s a good sign in just about anybody (the idiosyncratic passion generally, not the grasses themselves). If your only exposure to chevrons is via visual design, you’re missing out. And if you haven’t heard of isostatic rebound, again, missing out (actually, that’s arguable as I tried it as a party icebreaker for a few years in there but my narrative skills never seemed to evoke the sense of OMG, the world is a totally heart-stoppingly amazing place, let’s be friends and talk about glaciers! that I erroneously expected it might (note that this is a PAST ice-breaker–I am now fully party-trained when it comes to landscape formation topics) and so if you have only heard about it from me, I apologize). At any rate, the topographic maps of karst (calciferous) landscapes of Kentucky were on my mind when I was working on this.

tonal topographic tile for pattern

I also had recently (fall 2008) designed the above pattern, just as an exercise. The concept was that it would be a silk (or similar) lining for wool traveling coats and leather suitcases, part of an imaginary product line that would focus on a return to slow travel or travel as a Special Event and Something To Be Appreciated. It too had its roots in my geography background, probably touched off in part by these USGS maps of the Mississippi. And it was probably not entirely free of the influence of a surveyor-drafter father and the childhood visits to his workplace where we were entranced by erosion-simulators and models like these, another likely inspiration for the cut-paper piece above.

But by the same token, as happify, I’d been doing Minneapolis (and even a few St Paul) art/craft shows with some regularity for the past few years and though that generally meant I didn’t get a chance to peruse the other booths, I always tried to do at least a quick loop during a food break–I love seeing what other people are working on and feeling the energy of the shows. I also was not unfamiliar with the world of eye-candy on the internet, with my RSS feed full, and a tendency to rapidly scroll through hundreds of images in a few minutes’ break. I think it’s highly likely that somewhere in that time period, I encountered Crafterall’s art, whether I was conscious of it or not.

And therein lies the sliver of angst. Was the similarity the effects of convergent evolution? I’ve seen that happen with other creative friends who share a medium and come out of the same basic milieu (in one case, I had to go back and check my sketchbooks for penciled images clearly predating (foretelling!) the bag she’d just shown me to make sure I wasn’t going mad), and as a designer I certainly sometimes feel as if I’m just a happy drop in a large aesthetic wave. I certainly don’t believe in a real exceptionalism of skill; as unique (and wonderful! you are a beautiful snowflake!) as we each are, we’re the products of our experiences and environments and it’s hard for me to think that there is any idea, design, or work that I alone might be capable of creating. But part of that society that I’m a product of includes a veneration of the individual and of property rights, including intellectual property. Heck, one of the first “extras” I invested in for happify, even before a Wacom tablet, was a U.S. trademark back in 2007 when I realized I’d been using the name for a few years and wanted some protection.

I don’t want to be that creative person who plagiarizes or even who is inspired by others without any recognition or self-awareness. At the same time, that fear can easily become a paralyzing one, especially in a world where my influences include fleeting clicks on the screen during a work break or on the bus, and when I am in the business of designing-for-money. I think I’m at a good place for this, staying cognizant of my influences as best I can, being open to feedback, supporting conversations about originality in a social world, and recognizing both my own fallibility and the inevitability that my work builds on the creativity of others. In my graphic design work, I’ve tried to develop processes and habits that work against accidental or unintentional plagiarism. But I also see and hear others talking about methods that are more directly derivative than I would be comfortable with, and I wonder how much my efforts are really necessary and not time-wasters, It’s a conversation I would love to have with more creative types of all sorts–how and where do you deal with this? What motivates you to do so?

4 thoughts on “DIY: geography art

  1. This cracked me up, the part in parentheses:
    “I certainly don’t believe in a real exceptionalism of skill; as unique (and wonderful! you are a beautiful snowflake!) as we each are…”

    Hm, I don’t worry about plagiarism… (But I don’t create as much as you do, nor for pay–is this part of your concern?)
    I do, however, sometimes worry about picking up trendy jargon (because it soon stops meaning anything specific) or about using words or phrases that I don’t really mean or understand. (That’s one reason I like etymology—maybe it’s kinda like the topography of a word?)

    • I don’t think the pay is my concern; it predates that part of my design work. I think part of it comes out of a very strong value my art-teacher mother placed on being true to the process/voice/art. It also comes out of the weird way that being copied (directly) is an act of silencing/erasing–I’ve experienced it a few times and it is only intellectually flattering. I don’t mind not receiving credit for something (and sometimes prefer not to directly be credited), but it’s very unpleasant to have one’s words/images claimed as someone else’s–perhaps that’s what also underlies my discomfort with cultural appropriation.

      As far as trendy jargon, I’m perhaps the opposite. I have a huge word-crush on jargon, the more specific/esoteric/outside the realm of my everyday, the better. I love the etymologies behind jargon and what those reveal about groups, how I can share a language and still find it totally incomprehensible. I’m very aware of how language serves to exclude as well as form bonds, but my natural inclination is towards ❤ for neologisms and insider language.

      Perhaps you're referring to the buzzword stuff? In which case, agree. I lean heavily to the descriptive view of language and it's hard for me to get too fussed about our language shifting so long as it doesn't decrease the diversity of it (I want to keep my irregular verb forms, archaic spellings, regional grammars!).

      What kind of trendy jargon are you referring to?

  2. Oh, I think I agree—I love how language morphs and cross-pollinates (though the word “staycation” drives me nuts for some reason).

    I didn’t mean I object to the words and terms that make up the “gear and tackle and trim” of trades… {to borrow from Gerard Manley Hopkins, as you know}.

    I meant phrases that are more like verbal invasive species—for instance, therapy jargon (e.g. “fear of intimacy”) and academic jargon (I used to be fairly fluent in it but at the moment cannot call up a single phrase, glory be!* ) are the two I had to work hard to beat back.

    Maybe I especially dislike it because I grew up in an academic setting where the biggest “sin” was not to sound clever. There was a time in my life when I sounded more like a clever parrot than myself—someone who could quote T. S. Eliot but couldn’t say in her own words what she thought of a movie.

    Sometimes it’s not trendy words, but trendy style:
    cute irony for instance–what I call “sock monkey” speech—very big in the last few years.

    * Oh, I know some academic jargon—the use of words such as “unpack” or “space” (geez, no one even says “a room” anymore)–it starts out useful, then spreads like kudzu vine
    (“…through the 1950s, the Soil Conservation Service promoted [kudzu] as a great tool for soil erosion control and was planted in abundance throughout the south. Little did we know that Kudzu is quite a killer, overtaking and growing over anything in its path. ”
    YOU WROTE: ” I don’t mind not receiving credit for something (and sometimes prefer not to directly be credited), but it’s very unpleasant to have one’s words/images claimed as someone else’s”

    Oh, yes! BIG difference!

    Hm. I guess it’s something like the difference between borrowing and stealing? Or a gift vs. a purchase vs. a theft?

    And I do care about those differences.

    For instance, when I started taking photographs of thrift against a black background, I wanted to credit you (and did) not just to be “fair” but because that kind of “borrowing” of ideas is such a delight—a kind of sharing that enlarges, not reduces.
    It’s so great, you want to say—look at this cool thing so-and-so showed me!

    • My current least favorite phrase is “the fact of the matter is”–it’s said by so many, even some I admire, and is such meaningless filler!

      Like the idea of verbal invasive species! (I nearly went to grad school directly post-undergrad to study invasive species, but I was interested in the human factors side of things and couldn’t figure out the language or space for that (plus other reasons)).

      Kudzu also makes a lovely paper, I’ve heard, which seems like a potential silver lining and way of keeping it in check. Still haven’t found it as an option within the U.S., however.

      More later.

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