Laura Bliss is a staff writer at CityLab, covering transportation and technology. She also authors MapLab, a biweekly newsletter about maps (subscribe here). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, The Atlantic, Los Angeles magazine, and beyond.
Jerry Gretzinger has been working on his 1,500-square-foot map for much of his life.
Over his 72 years, Jerry Gretzinger has lived many lives. He’s worked as an architect’s assistant in Ann Arbor, cataloged ancient mosaics on North African archaeological digs, volunteered for the Peace Corps, and designed upcycled women’s clothing in New York City.
Now back in his home state of Michigan, Gretzinger is an internationally exhibiting artist, renowned for his 1,500-square-foot map of a totally imaginary city. The recognition is new, but “Jerry’s Map,” as it’s called, isn’t. Gretzinger began working on it in 1963, and after an interlude in the ‘80s and ‘90s, he’s still going. Combining elements of urban planning, fine art, and the reuse of old materials, the work manifests Gretzinger’s varied experiences in a medium he’s always loved.
“As a kid, someone had given us a whole stack of National Geographic maps,” he says. “I’d color them in, trace their rivers, read their faraway names. I was just fascinated by them—they conjured up all kinds of images in my mind.”
Gretzinger’s own map started as a doodle. “I didn’t think of what I was making as anything with a label when I started,” he says. “It was just my little map, my pastime.” But over the years, it grew—into a large-scale, cartographic representation of a city he dubbed “Ukrania.” Rendered in acrylic, marker, colored pencil, ink, and collage, the map is now composed of more than 3,200 8-by-10-inch panels, which fit together like a puzzle.
The map is not static: Ukrania (and the suburbs, agricultural lands, and smaller cities that surround it) are completely imagined, but Gretzinger applies evolutionary processes to his map that simulate—“in a naive way,” he says—the process of how real cities grow.
Gretzinger continuously reworks the map panel by panel, dictated by an intricate set of instructions he selects at random from a hand-made deck of cards. These tell him when it’s time to repaint or redraw certain features, add “development” in rural lands, or layer new collage in particular regions. Though the map started out as a very literal representation of a made-up place, it has evolved into something more artful and abstract. The result is a bright, organic quilt of color, shape, and text, with jarring interruptions of sharp patches of black, white, and gray—a mysterious instruction Gretzinger recently phased into the deck, which he calls “voids.”
According to Gretzinger’s fastidious census records, about 17 million imaginary people live in the area encompassed by the map. But the population isn’t growing as quickly as it used to, partly because of the “voids” gradually covering more and more of the colorful expanse as Gretzinger obeys his cards.
“I’m anxious to see what happens when the void takes over more and more of the map,” he says. “But it’s happening slowly. I just keep hoping I’ll live long enough to see these things.”
Gretzinger’s map is currently on view at River Crossings, an exhibition of contemporary art at the Thomas Cole House in upstate New York, through November 1. Some “retired” panels are for sale on his personal website, and a digitization of the full map (albeit a slightly out-of-date version) can be explored above. And for more insight onto Gretzinger’s process, watch the short film below.