• Artist Matthew Cusick made the piece, Many Rivers, from layers of maps. View more of Cusick's work at mattcusick.com. (Photo courtesy of Matthew Cusick)

This article is part of a series of Q&As with some of the best artists working with maps. Read more Q&As here.

Whereas most of us look to maps to find directions, Matthew Cusick finds meaning. His art takes maps and uses their shapes, colours and textures to represent something else entirely. His work begs for a closer look at the fine details on the maps, but it also invites you to stand back and allow the bigger picture to emerge. For Cusick, that bigger picture is not just a visual challenge; he sees culture and change in maps, which “reflects the constant reinvention of the world.”

Canadian Geographic: What about maps inspires you?

Matt Cusick: Maps are like a cross between a book and a work of art. I am fascinated with history and cultural narratives, and maps are embedded with these narratives. But as a visual artist, I end up retaining the colors, shapes, patterns and spatial relationships of the cartography. Maps have all the properties of a brushstroke: nuance, density, line, movement, and color. Their palette is deliberate and symbolic, acting as a cognitive mechanism to help us internalize the external. Every mark is evidence of an existence and an index of a specific time and place. By splicing together dissimilar map fragments into the matrix of an illusory image, I can render hybrid topographies and timelines that integrate mythology with territory and generate new meaning from obsolete narratives.

I am also drawn towards the utilitarian nature of maps and the role they have played in shaping the world. They are not just scientific depictions of terrain, they are tools used to construct and intervene with our environment. That is why a map is always evolving; it must reflect the constant reinvention of the world. Using maps as a medium for collage continually presents me with the challenge of integrating the resonant, varied and complex nature of cartography with the more personal mystifying endeavor of making art.

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

MC: The connection between the medium and the subject is usually my primary incentive for beginning each new map collage. There are certain motifs that I return to often, such as waves, but I am always experimenting with new subject matter that has the potential to be enhanced by its congruence with a specific selection of maps. The subjects I construct out of maps represent certain ideas and moments in time that resonate deeply with me, and the maps I choose for each work relate to that subject’s timeline and history. Sometimes I will choose something completely arbitrary just because I like how the maps bring the form to life, but usually there is a logic or framework to the choices I make. Names and typography also play an important role. As I mentioned before, maps are meant to be read. To be truly appreciated, the map collages need to be read as well. But their impact and longevity depends on the strength of their formal elements. It is a delicate balance of the visual and the conceptual, the literal and the abstract.

There are so many connections and layers that inform my choice of subject matter and the maps I will use. The conceptual, cultural, historical and personal references can get very dense. I would like to start organizing a system of legends that will articulate these connections and have them accompany my exhibitions. That way the viewer, if he or she chooses, has access to this source of information. I think the best format for this would be a publication of its own, almost like an atlas.

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

MC: Each new piece begins with extensive research into the subject matter followed by hours spent looking through all my maps for ones that intuitively and conceptually are appropriate. I’ve accumulated a large inventory of all kinds of maps at this point. Most of them come from atlases, old geography textbooks and National Geographic magazines, but I also collect astronomical, nautical and aeronautical charts and US Geological Survey bathymetric and topographic maps. Knowing the range of materials I have to work with facilitates the conceptualization of the piece. It helps me determine the subject matter, the palette, the composition and the size of the piece.

Once I have a grasp on these elements I’ll start making a very detailed line drawing. Enlarged copies of the drawing are then used as templates to cut the maps. Each new map piece is cut to fit exactly with the adjacent pieces so as to preserve the uniformity of the picture plane. It is a technique similar to marquetry or pietra dura, a process of inlaying material to create the illusion of a singular surface. Piece by piece the maps are glued to plywood or an aluminum panel with a cradled back.

As the composition progresses, I start to cut new shapes directly from the panel of inlaid maps, which are then carefully removed and scraped clean with a small chisel and replaced with a new map cut exactly to size. At this point it becomes very organic and intuitive, a bit more like painting. It involves a lot of patience and a strong commitment to craft. Some pieces, no matter what size, will take forever to come to fruition. Sometimes I scrape off all the maps and start over again. Other pieces I work and re-work for years.

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

MC: Given the layers of information evident in maps, I strive for plausibility and seamlessness between the many juxtapositions that occur. A collage must rely on a kind of alchemy in order to be successful; it must combine and transform material elements into something unique and extraordinary. My work is engaged with manifesting this transformation, and the achievement of this intention is an endeavor I have rigorously committed myself to.

Sometimes though, I lose sight of the work’s merit, and frustration and doubt cloud my judgment. Because my intentions no longer impose themselves upon the experience others might have with it, this is when the work becomes the most generous. A balance between these two realizations of the work is what I hope ultimately takes place. I want people to view my work and be moved by both its intentional and unintentional accomplishments. I would also like them to recognize that the pictorial facade of my work is endowed with a linguistic and conceptual infrastructure, one that challenges the polarizing notions of representational and abstract art. But the greatest reward is to have someone respond to my work with passion and insight and to enlighten me to aspects of the work I hadn’t recognized myself.

Meet Nikki Rosato, an artist who makes map sculptures, and read about David Thomas Smith's manipulated satellite photos.