Connie Brown had her revelation while standing on top of a mountain on a three-week trek in the Pyrenees. "That's where you're supposed to have a revelation," she says. "That's where I had it."
The brainstorm was this: she would capture the awesome vista in front of her not with a camera but with a huge canvas map painted herself. And she would make these maps for a living.
Fast-forward a few decades and that idea — assisted by plenty of earthly skill and persistence — has been made real. Today Brown makes customized, hand-painted maps in the ornate style of cartographers from the great voyager age at her Redstone Studios in Durham, Connecticut. Over the years she's mapped elaborate personal journeys through the world's best-known cities and its little-known terrains, all without any formal cartographic training.
"I used to be really embarrassed about that," she says. "In retrospect, I think: Ha! Good for me."
The creative process typically begins when someone comes to Brown with a trip or an occasion to celebrate. She collaborates with the client to identify a basic style; most of the maps are quite large — 3-by-3 feet and up — with many organizations commissioning wall-sized works. They also agree on various flourishes; many of Brown's map include inset maps or illustrations.
The maps are intended to be thematic, not practical. Some involve distinct geographic locales while others capture the routes of personal travels. Brown has mapped road trips across America and cycling adventures through France, sojourns through India and African safaris. Once in a while she'll map something abstract, like an academic journey or the world of a burrito lover.
When she maps an individual city it's usually New York. She and her original business partner, Julie Ruff, got their start when the New York Times ran a small piece on her work alongside a map of the East Sixties in Manhattan. Since then has painted Lower Manhattan, the Hudson River and its watershed, and the route of a New York City marathoner. She describes her city works as a "slightly different challenge."
"It's hard, just to hit on the level of detail and specificity you need," she says. "How to provide enough of the grid that it reads New York City and not so much that it's all lines and nomenclature."
Brown says she derives artistic inspiration from a number of 16th and 17th century maps — "the golden age of cartography." The works of Abraham Ortelius and John Speed are among her particular favorites. That's not to say she's lives completely in a cartographic past: she consults David Rumsey's digitized map collection for contemporary details, and plots the basic skeleton of most maps using Google Maps.
Still, the Age of Discovery guides most of her work. She appropriates any number of design bells and whistles from the masters: cartouches, borders, colors, even printing style. Though she's upfront with clients about what she's lifted, she has few qualms about being artistically "light-fingered"; the old mapmakers stole from each other themselves, she says, which is often why geographic errors like the "island of California" endured.
"I work in that tradition," she says. "I steal whatever I feel like stealing from the old guys."
"Steal" might describe part of Brown's creative style, but it's not the word most would use to describe the cost of her maps. The smallest works (24-by-30 inches) begin at $5,000, while standard ones start at $10,000; depending on the details, that figure can rise considerably, she says. Brown admits that her clientele is rather "well-heeled."
"Sometimes my clients are such exotic travelers they go to places Google Maps doesn't even know about," she says.
The steep cost assures clients of receiving the sort of individual attention that intricate, hand-crafted maps demand. Brown says she only completes about seven or eight large maps a year, along with a number of small ones. The projects are so vast in scope that she's often intimidated at the beginning, but once she finally gets going, she says, "it's not such a mountain." She would know.