I’ve always been a big fan of maps, even in this age of gps navigation tools for cars and smart phones. These flat geographical representations serve a utilitarian function while simultaneously leaving a lot to the imagination and metaphorical reflection. Combined with an aesthetic of hard-edged lines, pale colors, grids, and place names in tiny fonts, it’s no wonder that maps continue to fascinate and inspire contemporary artists.

I was hoping the same thing would happen for my ElderSparks students when I introduced a cartography project in August. (Perhaps I was also channeling members of the traveling public and living vicariously through their summer adventures.) The idea was to make art from maps using various creative techniques. For inspiration, I showed them Paula Scher’s exuberant and finely detailed work, and my own elementary experiments. Their challenge was to create maps that expressed their own sense of place, or the personality whose footprints — theirs! — were left behind.

(Click on images to enlarge.)

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While working on this map, Dorothy got lost in memories of car trips to local farms that she and her husband took as children and adults.

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Hank is practically blind but he and his devoted wife Marge, who visits every day, hang out with Jeff and join us on occasion. At first, Hank resisted drawing because he insisted he couldn’t see, but Marge and I kept encouraging him. “Pick a color and just feel your arm and hand moving the marker across the page,” I said. “Focus on the movement and how that feels; forget about what the actual drawing looks like.” Once he started, I left to attend to other students. When I returned, both he and Marge were thrilled with what they had achieved together.

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Bernice grew up in Brooklyn and claims she is not an artist. Since doing something visual was so problematic, I asked her to notate the map with references to childhood experiences. This is as far as she got the first session.

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When I brought the map project to an Alzheimer’s facility several days later, only a few participants understood it. Ironically enough, most felt lost, with no idea where to start. Jean, whom I counted as one of the higher-functioning residents, kept folding her map around markers and crayons until she had assembled a tidy package. Each time I suggested simple things she could do to add color to the map, e.g., making “w’s” to represent water, or filling in the outlines of a river with a darker shade of blue or dots, she said, “I can’t do it, I just can’t!” Eventually, I had to stop because she was getting increasingly frustrated and upset. Two months earlier, this would have been a piece of cake for her.

Another woman was also stumped. Her map was of midtown Manhattan. I showed her how she could start by darkening the lines that delineated wider streets, or coloring in the two rivers, or placing trees in Central Park. When none of that registered, I proposed that we add question marks to represent both her own confusion about what to do and the tourists who needed directions. After covering the map with them, I added arrows to symbolize the guidance that helpful New Yorkers might give out-of-town visitors, and exclamation points to hint at what happened when sightseers finally arrived at their destination. Voilà, we had created a whole story out of the author’s creative block:

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 A few other bright spots:

 

After going as far as she could, Frances asked for help in completing her map. I added the curvy blue arrows to tie everything together.

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A collaboration between Lillian, a resident, and Sally, the assistant program director.

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Collage by Yvonne, a home health aide.

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Mary Jo couldn’t work on this map of Newark until she added the neighborhood of her youth. When I asked her to draw a picture of her family home at its location on the map, she politely explained that the road map’s particular perspective only allowed her to show the building’s footprint.

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Back at our second and third weekly ElderSparks sessions, I encouraged the students to really let loose with their map art. Dorothy spent the hour meticulously and happily filling in a small portion of the map with colorful lines that she later explained represented different aspects of her son’s community. It was her idea to cut it out and paste it on one of the round foil disks we had worked on earlier:

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Jeff broke new ground in three-dimensional maps.

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Hank and Marge decided to work with a copy of Jeff’s map. Hank’s comment when they were finished: “Super! There’s a lot to see. You can spend a lot of time looking at it.” Remember that Hank is almost blind.

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