Artist Emily Garfield maps places that don't exist. "I think that's related to the way cities grow in real life."

Emily Garfield like to say that she grows cities. With pen, ink, and watercolor, the Boston-based artist creates maps of imaginary places that tap into the essence of urban form.

"They evolve as I draw," she says of her free-form cartographs. "I think that's related to the way cities grow in real life."

"Pulses (Cityspace #216)"

Garfield has long been interested by the presentation of architecture in visual art. The inviting, surrealist arcades and sidewalks of the Italian painter Giorgio de Chirico inspired Garfield to begin producing her own street-level dreamscapes as an art student at Brown University.

But it was when she created her first aerial view of a fantasy city—an abstract web of streets, bridges, and blocks—that she got a particularly positive response from other people. Even without any text, Garfield's drawings were strongly recognizable as maps. And viewers connected to that.

"Stepping Stones (Cityspace #94)"

"With a few exceptions, my drawings don't describe real places," says Garfield. "I don’t label streets or give direction. My rivers are barely identifiable. They're very abstract. But people still identify them as maps right away. They put themselves into that space."

Garfield attributes this recognizability to the fractal quality of her maps—the complex pattern that repeats, ad infinitum, into the corners of her pages. Real cities, and especially ones that have grown mostly from the bottom-up, are often fractal in form when examined from above.

"It's interesting, because my cities are technically built 'top-down,' since they're only coming from me," says Garfield. "But I’m drawing them as if they’re a more organic city where people self-organize and gather in neighborhoods like they would in a real city."

"Infotrails (Cityspace #213)"

She's expanded her practice into offering imaginary map-making workshops at various museums and maker spaces in the Boston area. Kids tend to connect more readily to the fantastical prompt, she says, but some adults run with it, too.

"I had a woman who was a quilter, and was used to making repetitive, geometric patterns, and she got really into it that way," Garfield says. "But everyone gets it eventually. Everyone has an idea of a map in their head."

"Composite 6 (Kennebunk / Airspace)"
"Antique Plans (Cityspace #181)"
"Boston, MA"—one of a few "real" maps Garfield has created
"Sunrise Fields (Cityspace #151)"
"Branching Networks (Cityspace #178)"
Mapmakers at one of Garfield's recent workshops.

All images courtesy of Emily Garfield.

About the Author

Most Popular

  1. A stained glass artwork depicting two owls and geometric patterns
    Design

    The Brilliant Artist That Chicago, and the World, Nearly Forgot

    The idiosyncratic art of Edgar Miller (1899-1993) has long been hidden behind closed doors. Finally, Chicagoans are getting more opportunities to see it.

  2. Equity

    D.C.’s War Over Restaurant Tips Will Soon Go National

    The District’s voters will decide Initiative 77, which would raise the minimum wage on tipped employees. Why don’t workers support it?

  3. POV

    To Build a Better Bus System, Ask a Driver

    The people who know buses best have ideas about how to reform the system, according to a survey of 373 Brooklyn bus operators.

  4. Sunlight falls on a row of graves through tree branches.
    Environment

    ‘Aquamation’ Is Gaining Acceptance in America

    Some people see water cremation as a greener—and gentler—way to treat bodies after death, but only 15 states allow it for human remains.

  5. A Milwaukee County Transit System bus.
    Transportation

    Move to Wisconsin, Millennials! (Just Don't Forget Your Car.)

    As the state spends millions to lure under-40 workers from across the Midwest, local transit riders are stuck in place.