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.
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Anton Thomas’ fascination with North America knows no bounds. Actually, scratch that, it knows these bounds: four years, 4,000 hours, three trips across the Pacific, and 47 by 59 inches of paper, covered with a painstakingly hand-drawn map of the continent that he says captured his “geographic heart.”
Thomas is a New Zealand-born, Melbourne-based artist and cartographer who’s been drawing a massive pictorial map of North America since 2014. Just in time for the North American Cartographic Information Society’s annual meeting next week in Norfolk, Virginia, Thomas has nearly completed his monumental and entirely self-assigned task. He is also self-trained; Thomas had hardly used a color pencil before he started charting the states, cities, ranges, and rivers of the United States, Mexico, and Canada—plus the bathymetry of their surrounding oceans—with rich emotion.
Thomas showed me a print at CityLab’s offices last week, and like other admirers of the map, I was struck by the evident devotion and care. Fine details are sketched into every millimeter: Each major city is drawn with a recognizable skyline, native fauna and flora slyly peek out from bodies of water and swaths of forests. The earnest drawing style lends the map a bit of whimsy, but the work is not cartoonish. Soon prints will be available for purchase through his website, but map lovers heading heading to NACIS or any of Thomas’ speaking dates can catch a glimpse that way, too.
Thomas can’t quite put his finger on what’s motivated him. But it began on a whim, he told me: He free-drew the outline of North America on a used refrigerator he and a roommate picked off the street while living in Montreal in 2012. Thomas, who earned his living running a high school print room until recently, so enjoyed the task that he decided to devote virtually every hour of his free time for the ensuing years to doing the thing right. Once he finishes this map next month, he’ll write a book about the project, and then start on his next frontier, a map of the world’s animals.
After we met, Thomas answered some questions via email. His answers have been edited and condensed.
Why North America?
Drawing this map would be my love letter to a continent. I wanted to share my appreciation for its geography with everyone else, in a way that would encourage geographic curiosity in people regardless of their interest in the topic. I felt that this style of hand-drawn map might be a good way to articulate geography to everyone—from the layperson to the cartographer. I started in May 2014, and originally predicted it would take six months. Instead it has taken more than four years.
You've told me you're more interested in conveying the "psychogeography" of North America than creating a highly accurate geographic map. Why?
Accuracy is very important to me in a broad sense, and I’m quite obsessive about all the foundational framework: rivers, borders, coastlines, city placement. But once I have the map skeleton, I free myself from the confines of scale accuracy. By kicking the door wide open for content, I hope to tap into a true sense of place: the psychological geography. Sure, that caribou I drew would be 15 times taller than Mt. Everest were it actually that size, but how are you going to tell the story of the Canadian Arctic without a caribou?
With a city, the actual ground space any downtown area takes up in a city footprint is tiny compared to the suburbs. But the psychological real estate a skyline takes up is enormous. Manhattan is a great example of this. It is the smallest in land area of the five boroughs, yet its skyline can be seen far and wide, it dominates and symbolizes New York City, and is recognized at a global level.
Have you received any critical feedback on your choices?
Omission of cities and towns usually gets me in the most trouble. It can provoke city rivalries. Early on I made the mistake of drawing only Dallas, not Dallas and Fort Worth, which received a lot of criticism. I actually went back and fixed this recently, working Fort Worth into the illustration, because I found myself agreeing that, yes, in this case there is a unique twin city characteristic that is important to recognize.
Has creating this map changed your experience of traveling in North America?
Taking a flight anywhere in this country, I’ve got a pretty good idea of what’s below. Sometimes I’ll be somewhere I’ve never been, and know exactly what river runs through the town, what statue I’ll see at the university, and what interstate will take me where. It’s like my mind has been wired to take a broad sample of everything that makes a place unique, and package that up into a map.
People tend to react to this map with delight. Why do you think that is? Anything to do with the heavy digital emphasis of contemporary cartography, do you think?
All my research depends heavily on the internet. I use Google Maps to get around just like the next person. But I think there is a general interest in hand-crafted products right across the creative sphere. Our world is so deeply digital now that there is a hunger for the hand-made. If I had made the exact same map on Adobe Illustrator, for example, my suspicion is that the wow factor might be greatly reduced. I think it really matters it is drawn by hand. There appears to be a lot of value in the anachronism itself.
A nail-biter’s guide to the midterms
Last week on CityLab, my colleagues David Montgomery and Richard Florida reported a story replete with visuals about the suburban swing factor in the upcoming midterm elections. They show the areas to watch: In both dense and sparsely populated suburbs—geographies carefully defined in the story—“nearly 40 percent of all Republican-held seats are competitive,” they write.
One of the maps, which shows each congressional district equally sized as a hexagram, is shown below. (Nerds: This style of map is called a cartogram.) The purple areas will be the most decisive ones.
Ban the box: A new law in Scotland will prohibit “lazy” mapmakers from displaying the Shetland Islands in an inset. ♦ Uneasy sleep: Mattress Firm’s bankruptcy will leave a lot of empty stores on the retail landscape. ♦ More visible: Indigenous people in Central America are using maps to tell their own stories. ♦ Medium is the message: Cartographers in colonial Spain mixed hand-drawn and printed styles. ♦ Riddled with error: Inaccurate mapmaking has cost lives and a lot of money through history.