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Creative cartography: Nikki Rosato's map sculptures

Neurotic map-rollers and Nikki Rosato would not get along. While some people cringe at the thought of a creased map, Rosato takes pleasure in dissecting the maps, carefully cutting away the meat of the map until just the skeleton remains. What the young artist is left with in the end is a vascular lacework of roads that she shapes into human forms.


The human form is easily recognizable in Rosato’s work, reminding us of the complexity of human biology and geography. She even takes it a step further: “The land is just as alive as we are,” she says. “A map’s lines carve the pathways for the rhythms and movements that undulate across the surface of the earth.”


Canadian Geographic: Why do maps inspire you?


Nikki Rosato: I find the visual aspects of a road map to be remarkably human. Roads and rivers not only mimic the lines that cover the surface of the human body (fingerprints, wrinkles, scars, etc.), but they also resemble our internal makings (such as veins and arteries). A map is a symbol of a living, breathing, moving body. The land is just as alive as we are — a map’s lines carve the pathways for the rhythms and movements that undulate across the surface of the earth.


Before starting the cut map work, I had been working on a series of paintings and prints in which I was redrawing every line on the surface of my body. While in the midst of this project, I stumbled across a box of old maps in a used bookstore. It was in that moment that I realized the lines of the road map were strikingly similar to the work I was making. I decided to dissect these maps for their lines, and the idea for the cut map portraits took off from there.


Nathan: Buffalo, NY, 2009


Can Geo: What is the connection between the medium and the subject?


NR: Whenever I create a portrait, I’ll interview the subject asking if there is a place that has had a significant impact on them, and I’ll use a map based on the person’s answer. The place that people choose always comes with a personal story: where they grew up, where they went to college, where they met their significant other. The location is often about relationships between individuals. For example, the distance between two lovers, relatives, friends. These personal stories are what make the pieces come alive for me.


Can Geo: How do you choose the maps you work with? How do you work with them to achieve the final product?


NR: I always keep an eye out for ways to acquire second hand maps — I like to reuse materials whenever possible. Sometimes the individuals that I work with on projects will provide me with maps that have personal significance to them. In an era where digital navigation is becoming more and more prevalent, paper road maps have actually been quite easy to come by. Older, used maps no longer serve their original function — they have become these inaccurate historic objects.


To create the pieces, I usually start with a silhouetted reference image that I lay over the map as a template. I then cut all of the landmasses out of the designated area by hand with a small X-Acto knife, leaving only the roads and rivers behind. The remaining object is lacey and delicate — a ghostly reminder of what once was. Although the cut map is delicate, it is created from a paper that is meant to be handled, therefore, allowing the flexibility to mold and shape the material for the 3D pieces.


Can Geo: What are you hoping people will take away from your sculptures?


NR: My hope for the work is that it evokes from the viewer memories of their own personal journey. In response to the Connections series, which focuses on the role distance plays in a relationship between two figures, I’ve had people tell me that they know what that work feels like. Storytelling is an important part of this series of work, so I find it encouraging when people look at the work and feel compelled to share their own experiences.


Written by Jimmy Thomson