Featured Artist: Emily Garfield

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E M I L Y   G A R F I E L D

Downtown (Cityspace #115) by featured artist Emily Garfield

Emily Garfield creates intricate maps of imaginary places that explore the origins of cities and the function of maps themselves. She received her BA in Visual Arts from Brown University, where she also pursued studies in the brain’s response to art and aesthetic beauty through the Cognitive Science department. She has participated in exhibitions throughout the greater Boston area as well as New York and Philadelphia. Her work is in the collection of the Kamm Teapot Foundation as well as numerous private collections.  She was kind enough to let us steal her bio from her website.

She also answered a few of our needlessly byzantine questions.  Take a look!


1.)  Why maps?  Why paper city-scapes?  Do you have a secret desire to be an urban planner or an architect?  Other than New York City, are there other places that inspire your work?

Arches by Emily Garfield

I’ve never really considered those professions, surprisingly! I’ve always liked the feeling of being in a city, mostly from growing up in New York. I’m most comfortable in a place with tall buildings and a steady rhythm of sidewalk traffic. In college I was exploring a lot of ways to depict city scenes (mostly imaginary) in different media, and did my senior exhibition on the theme of cities. I started the maps for that exhibition in order to show the overhead view of how an imaginary city might grow up. I also started doing city pop-ups at that time.

I really wouldn’t say that the maps are inspired by anywhere. I do get that question a lot, and although I’m sure that the visual language is subconsciously influenced by what I’ve seen in the places I’ve been to, each map is created in my head and formed as I draw. The paper pop-ups are partly influenced by specific architecture that I’ve seen in Boston and New York, but altered to fit the pop-up engineering and to create a more balanced aesthetic rhythm.

1.5.)  Let’s pretend you are an urban planner.  What do American cities, in your opinion, need more of?

If they were to mimic the maps I draw, they would have more frequent parks and less frequent houses, also extremely improbable rivers.

2.)  What artists, either in the “artistic canon” or outside of it, inspire or influence you?

How interesting! I actually started drawing imaginary cityscapes (skylines or scenes, not maps at first) as part of an independent study on surrealism. I was interested in seeing how far I could go in inventing places that don’t exist but looked feasible. Those

Mystery and Melancholy of a Street by Giorgio de Chirico

drawings, and my later maps, are sort of like dreamscapes of dreams I’ve fabricated. So in terms of the art world I would include surrealists, especially those with an architectural bent like DeChirico, but I have to say that most of my influences aren’t strictly in the art world. I think of my maps as more craft than fine art, since for me they’re more about the effort I put in than any attempt to provoke or even send a message. Plus, they could be seen as functional in a way.

2.5)  We try to emphasize the cross-disciplinary nature of art at Babel/Salvage.  Who else influences your work in maybe more oblique ways? I’m thinking of scientists, authors, musicians or the like that may influence what you do, if any….  Who influences your work in more personal, less professional ways?  Also, are there objects, ideas, movements, patterns that mean something to you?

Although my major on my diploma was Visual Arts, my focus at school was actually interdisciplinary aesthetics. I took art-themed classes in comparative literature, philosophy, and cognitive science, where I ended up doing an independent study with one of the professors on how the brain responds to art and beauty. Things like fractal imagery are particularly likely to give us an aesthetic reaction. I don’t often mention this, but privately I think of the maps sometimes as my own personal experiment in aesthetics. When I draw them, I’m partly thinking of creating a new place from the ground level, but I’m also keeping the overall composition in mind.

City organization itself is very interesting scientifically for its emergent properties. Think about how old cities have segregated neighborhoods, by class or occupation, that have grown up without any particular top-down instruction, and often persist. I’ve been reading more and more about emergence and can feel it affecting my work.

I’ve also been stunned and impressed by the connections that other people make when they see my work at shows or fairs. The second person who talked to me at my very first craft fair told me that my maps reminded her of her poetry, and I really appreciate that kind of synesthetic response. (For what it’s worth, the first person was a bum who said, “they’re maps of nowhere?? Well, that’s not very useful!”  My most scathing critique).

Intersection 105A by Emily Garfield

3.  Paper is an essential element to much of your work.  Can you talk about your ideas on the future of paper in an increasingly digitized, electronic world?  How has technology changed or shaped how you work?

I mostly use paper because it’s the most logical substrate for what I make, although I do have plans to make maps in etched metal (sometime in the future when I have time!). Paper of course is traditional for both maps and pop-ups, but I’d like to branch out from that at some point. I recently saw some amazing maps/schema done in ceramic, which is beautiful. I can’t help thinking that what I make won’t endure as long as that artist’s work will.

I’ve toyed with the idea of writing computer programs to create maps, but I’m not sure if I would be able to respect my work if I chose to do that. It might be interesting as a side project or perhaps an inspiration for a subsequent hand-drawn map.

4.  You seem to have a fondness for stop-motion.  Are there any animators or filmmakers you admire or are influenced by?  

My first stop-motion project was documenting my drawing process, since I thought that the order of street and building placement was really an important part of the map that others should see. I showed that first animation at my senior exhibition, alongside the finished map. I was also taking digital animation the same year, but working mostly in a 3D Pixar style (little-known fact about me: my first job interview senior year was for Pixar!). I was really interested in bringing hand-drawn aesthetic into 3D animation, and I’d still like to continue that project someday. I’ve never actually been trained in stop-motion, it’s just something I picked up. I do love Terry Gilliam’s animations for Monty Python; so much of stop-motion is about timing. When I was working on the Mariko Kusumoto project I would spend a lot of time in AfterEffects tweaking the time to make the “punchline” effective.

5.  You also make jewelry.  Any designers or jewelry artists that you admire?  What is your process in making jewelry?  How would you compare that process to the process of making maps or other sculptures?

That is a long list! I currently work at a gallery that’s particularly known for studio jewelry, so I’m just surrounded by so many talented artists’ works. I’m not trained in metalworking, though, so my abilities are limited. That said, I love experimenting and coming up with new designs. I’ve been making jewelry for myself since I was pretty little, so it’s always been a hobby; it’s only recently that I’ve started to sell it.

When I set up at craft fairs, I typically have my maps on one side and jewelry on the other. I always get a few people who ask “did you make all of this?” but I’ve also had a lot of people say that they can see the connection between the maps and the jewelry. They both have an organic, fractal feel.

6.  What are you working on now?  What does the future of your work look like?  Any upcoming shows or events you want to mention…?

Currently I’m working on finishing some projects and making more large-scale (18”x24”) maps, and I have a REALLY large commission I’m working on (3 ft x 4 ft!), but I have a lot of projects that I’m waiting to start. I would love to combine more elements in my maps, and maybe start making them on canvas. I’m interested in pursuing collage elements. As I mentioned, I’d like to try etching maps in metal and using patina to create depth. I feel like the maps I’m currently making have reached a plateau, and I’m super excited to see where I can take them next.

7.) Let’s talk about photography.  How do your photographs relate to your work?  What are you trying to find when taking pictures?  Are they works of documentation or works of art?  Is there a difference, to you?

The photographs on my site are mostly digital photography from travels and observations. I’m interested in photography from a design and illustration angle – what makes an interesting composition, and what might tell a story? I also spent a lot of time during college doing darkroom photography. I was especially interested in original processes – techniques used before standard silver gelatin printing, such as cyanotype (blue printing). Those processes can be used more like painting, because the light-sensitive, color-imparting medium is applied to the substrate (usually paper, but it often could be anything) by hand. In a way this reminds me of what I like about drawing maps: the interaction between an organic, less controlled process and a rigid, controlled process.

Five Towns (Cityspace #85) by Emily Garfield

8.)  Back to the maps.  You use ink streams to represent waterways and there is a certain element of randomness, if you will, or as you state, you allow “…cities to grow from an organic, unplanned start, reflecting the way our urban areas came about and the natural origin that they still reveal in their layout.”  

Can you riff a little more on this comment?  How else does the “unplanned” influence how you begin any piece?  Often in reality, we have the power to reroute rivers and rip up mountains when we build and rebuild our cities and other human landscapes.  Is there a tinge or utopianism in your maps?  Are these idealized worlds, visions of the future or past, or purely “unseen geographic spaces that swarm in [your] head”?  You are making invisible cities (re: Italo Calvino) but do you occasionally find glimpses of these invisible places in the material, visceral world around you?

Growing Fields by Emily Garfield

The city where I grew up and the city I live in now are both defined by streets and patterns of living that were established long ago and that depended on pre-existing geographic elements. I tend to be drawn to cities like that because I like older cities with character that are close to bodies of water. I started exploring the idea of editing the landscape with water-resist pieces like “Growing Fields” where I used successive layers of watercolor wash to change the course of rivers and expand land masses.

I’ve also worked on several maps that no longer have that organic element at all, such as “Five Towns” and the more abstract recent maps like  “Graphite Sprawl” (whose name was chosen to reflect exactly that kind of growth that is not inspired by any preexisting geographic limitations). However, the form of these cities still ends up coming off as organic in its own way. I’m not particularly interested in graphing subdivisions – it would be much easier to come up with an algorithm for that! Rather, I like to think of cities as emergent systems, and imagine how the residents would create little fractal clusters for themselves, even in an area with no dictation by the landscape.

Graphite Sprawl (Cityscape #130) by Emily Garfield

9)  I’m going to go on a personal tangent here.  Invisible Cities is, without a doubt, one of my favorite books.  After reading it, I became obsessed with “finding” invisible cities.  I read the book why traveling in Greece and remember one of Calvino’s cities described as the ruins of one city underneath the ruins of another city underneath the ruins of another city etc., which described with odd precision exactly the kinds of places I was visiting (Mycenean ruins below Greek ruins below Roman ruins below Christian ruins below contemporary cities).  Years later I went to Venice and was stunned by just how unusual the place is (something we might lose with the touristification of places like that, as if Venice was a theme part or an interactive postcard).  Also, places in Arizona (where I am from) like small towns such as Bisbee or Jerome have this hidden, invisible feel.  So, I guess what I’m asking is, have you find eerie evidence of your imaginary places in reality?  

I haven’t personally had the experience of seeing something that I drew in real life, although I’ve seen some places that are similar to maps I’ve drawn. It sounds weird, but I don’t think about drawing a map when I make them; I think of drawing a city or a neighborhood from the ground level, as if I’m walking around it and seeing who lives where.

I did have an eerie experience last December when a visitor came to my table at a craft fair, saw one of my prints (“Five Towns”), and said, “This looks exactly like my town in Colombia.”  She pulled up her hometown on Google Maps and it really did have the same concentric circle roads that my drawing did. Incidentally, when I talk to urban design students they say that that particular drawing looks most like an urban planner’s ideal city project, and not as much like how a real city would grow up, the way my drawings that are based on waterways do.

Archipelago (Cityscape #136) by Emily Garrfield

Thanks, Emily.  You can view Emily Garfield’s work at www.emilygarfield.com and purchase items from her at her Etsy Shop.  She also has a blog: keep-creating.blogspot.com.