Maps as Art: Paula Scher

Paula Scher is a New York artist and graphic designer.  In the late 1990s, she had a successful career as a graphic designer, with a portfolio of work as diverse as the album covers for major bands and the Citibank logo.  But in the midst of constant demands from clients, feeling “inundated” by news of the Lewinsky scandal, and exhausted from renovations to her Connecticut home, she sought an escape in her art. 

Scher sequestered herself in her bedroom, tuned the radio to news of the Lewinsky scandal, and began painting the home states of the commentators she heard on the air–Arkansas, Louisiana, and Texas.  A year and a half later she had finished the entire United States, and turned her art maps into an entire series of paintings.

The details of Ms. Scher’s motivations and intentions in her art are chronicled in this New York Times article, as well as in this introductory essay by Jennifer Liese for her 2007-2008 show in the Maya Stendhal Gallery in New York City.  Her maps are full of details, from the names of cities and towns, roads and railroads, parks and land features, and sometimes even statistics about the region in the painting.  To paraphrase the essay cited above, although Scher’s maps are of instantly recognizable locations like Israel or the United States, they are inaccurate as representations of actual territory.  But her representations of the regions evoke their character in a broader sense:

Consider Middle East, where black paint predominates, reflecting both the dire conflict in the region and the oil underlying it. India—its painted letters pop like a Bollywood poster title—is a flamboyant hive of pink terrain, orange place names, and neon-celadon roads outlined in toothpaste blue and pocked with metallic copper nodes.

Scher has a litany of interesting opinions about maps, what they represent, and their role in the world.  She points out that maps–even supposedly “accurate” maps–are just as inaccurate as hers:

If I want to get really sardonic and cynical about it, I would argue that my maps are about as accurate as the New York Times. The reporter writes down the information, gets part of it wrong, and slants it in a specific way. The truth is a matter of perception.

Scher’s maps are historical statements.  Her map of the Middle East, for instance, includes the obsolete borders of the Babylonian, Ottoman, Roman and other empires in the region.  Her maps are also political statements–those ancient borders are meant to demonstrate “that the people of these lands have been allied and split ad infinitum.” The details on her tsunami map of Southeast Asia even evoke the epicenter of the earthquake.

Click here or on the picture above to launch a slideshow of some of the paintings at Scher’s recent exhibition.

2 Responses to “Maps as Art: Paula Scher”


  1. 1 Mike May 7, 2008 at 8:44 am

    Does she have any of DC?

    She’s a bit “imperialism is ruining the middle east” for my political tastes, but cool art nonetheless.

  2. 2 Puca May 8, 2008 at 12:02 am

    These are great works of art maps. I wouldn’t mind having a few hanging in my walls. I’ll contact the gallery to fdind out their costs.
    Puca


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Welcome to Cartographia

Cartographia is a blog about how we use maps to represent the world around us, and how people interpret maps today and throughout history. Please feel free to send any questions, comments, or recommendations directly to me at cartographia.blog@gmail.com.

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