Teaching Traveling: Talk about a creative career — here’s a man who draws fictional maps ON people!
David Nuttall is the founder of Artimaps: “Hand drawn plausible fictitious maps,” located in one of the largest artist spaces in the United States: Lowe Mill. Amazing, right? David, tell us about your background.
David: Hi! I am originally from Aberfan in South Wales. I lived in Addlestone, Windsor and Datchet in southern England. I have lived in Huntsville, Alabama since 1996. I have been drawing maps since I was 5 and worked professionally with maps from age 16.
After I moved to the U.S. my job entailed working with mapping and Geographic Information Systems (GIS) and data for 911 customers map systems. This meant traveling to Public Safety customers all over North America to install and teach the mapping update workflow and how to use the map software. I was lucky to travel to some very interesting places, a lot of which would not have been on my list of places to visit, if I have not been “sent’ there.
TT: Interesting! Tell us more about your travels and how you started to create fictional maps.
D: I went to Iran, for about 9 months…. but, I did not actually travel there.
Some background to that: My artwork is hand drawn plausible fictitious maps. And, yes, that is a thing. The maps I started drawing when I was a kid were fictional places, and I have not drawn treasure maps or map inspired by novels of science fiction.
This fictional map drawing continued after I got a job as a cartographer with the British Government and after moving to the U.S. and working with map software. I kept these maps to myself though, essentially hidden, until about 10 years ago.
I now have a business (Artimaps) and after being laid off about 3 years ago I have focused on my own maps — as art. I draw maps that are set in the real world and can be inspired by real locations, but they are complete fiction. I also call them “Real Maps of Fake Places.”
So… the Iran trip…
One of the styles of map I now draw is my Human Terrain series, these are hand drawn maps directly on people’s skin. One of my posts on Instagram received comments in a language I could not recognize. One of the two people chatting in the comments started to follow me, so I sent them a direct message to ask if they would mind telling me what language they were speaking.
It turned out to be Arabic, but in English characters. I then asked if what they said was good! She replied, “Yes,” that she liked my work, and that she thought it was interesting that I drew maps on nudes, while she drew nudes on maps.
We started chatting much more, and it turns out she is a talented artist and draws the human form, often many figures making up the shape of a continent. She also draws other figurative work, but cannot display this in Tehran. We discussed what it was like there and in Alabama and through these conversations I became very interested in Tehran and the geography, history and architecture of where she lived.
I now had drawn a map, inspired by these conversations. I learnt about street layouts in ancient Iranian cities and what modern areas would look and feel like. I used Google Earth and images that I could find including aerial views (oblique and orthogonal) as well as surface level pictures and image searches.
Combining these with the descriptions and answers to my questions, I created a 12”x12” map of a dense fictional city in Iran. This was in progress for many months, and paused when I needed to work on a commission.
The most intimidating part was fairly early on when I needed to add the labels. These were the city name (going to be named after my new friend), district names, and landmark features. I wanted the text to be authentic, so she said it should be in Farsi.
This meant needing to create my fictional names in English and send them to her via Instagram direct message. She transliterated these into Farsi and sent them back. I had to learn how to write Farsi script and practice. There is no possibility to erase or change once the pen is added to the boards I use.
I could not write these right to left, but felt pretty good that I had transcribed the characters reasonably well. Thankfully I was proven correct when a friend came to the studio and read the text for some of the features — and I had no idea he was born in Tehran!
So, this map was fun to work on, and makes me want to visit Iran in person. The city name translates to “City of Blazing Stars” which is what my friend’s name translates to. She just received a canvas print I had created for her and mailed to her.
I wanted to thank her for the help and also really wanted her to have a copy of the map that only exists because of chatting to her through Instagram, and because we are both artists who had a connection through maps and the human body. If anyone wants to check out my work, my Instagram feed has a new map post every other day at @artimaps.
TT: Fascinating. Now, how do you find travel opportunities for when you’re not being an Alabama artist at Lowe Mill?
D: If I answer that directly, the vast majority of my travel has not been to places I have selected. I still do some consulting work with the 911 maps, and this takes me to places that may not sound interesting (Painesville, OH), but then I get to be 10 minutes from a state park on Lake Erie. Every night of a couple of trips I would go visit the lake, finding different vantage points for the sun set.
So, In these situations I make the most of the travel I “have to do” and see as much as I can. I will look at maps prior to going, and ask the locals where I should visit when I get there.
I have always found working with Police, Fire, and their dispatch staff that you get good recommendations for inexpensive local food places… often ones that don’t look that good from the outside!
These trips have also provided a huge amount of inspiration for my fictional maps. It is quite difficult for me to visit somewhere and not think about how I would map this, or how I would create my version of this type of small town, geography, coastline, etc. There are so many interesting things in the “real world” that I will likely never run out of ideas and inspiration for my fictional locations.
TT: Indeed! So, how do you find the money to fund your travel?
D: I would love to be able to select locations that I want to go to just for my mapping inspiration, but I am not at that point financially yet with my art. For other trips (consulting), I have my travel and time paid for, so I can explore during the evenings.
My other main trips the past couple of years have been to the U.K. to visit family, and also last year to visit one of my maps that was accepted in the the Royal Academy of Arts Summer Exhibition in London. This was a big honor and as my first time, was not something I was going to miss. That exhibition has been running every summer for 249 years!
I have a couple of other ideas for travel and my art, and one is to conduct collaborations with other artists. I have made contact with some in England, Sweden, Spain and Chile that are keen to collaborate, if I can get there. I may look into travel grants for some of these.
My other plan for funding travel is with my Human Terrain maps. I have several potential customers in other locations. They want me to draw a personal map on them. These maps can be inspired by aspects of their life, and in some cases actually incorporate scars and other body issues into the map features. Many people have said that my maps around their scars have been extremely emotionally healing.
So, my plan to fund these is to figure out a way to have a concentration of several people in one location that I would go to for a week to 10 days. This would allow me to spread the cost of travel across the drawing sessions so one customer does not have to pay a high amount to get me to them for the drawing. I take all my own photographs of these maps, so that makes the trip a little easier to plan.
TT: I love that plan, and bet you can make that work! Now, tell us one moment from your travels that was particularly powerful.
D: Two contrasting replies come to mind. One relates to my travel for work to a 911 site, where I was delayed in Atlanta airport for my connecting flight. I was drawing a map on a piece of wood (that I would cut to fit in my briefcase/computer bag). I was in my own little world, creating places, when the gentleman next to me asked “is that a known art form?”
At this point I was still doing this just for myself, and did not consider my maps art — they were just my maps. But… I said “yes” in reply. No idea why I did that. We chatted for a bit, and he was actually interested, and that really made me wonder if this WAS art, and if others would like what I do enough to purchase my maps.
The other is a much more odd experience: one where I should have been seriously hurt, but was not injured at all… Might skip that one, longer to explain…
TT: Now I’m curious! Perhaps you’ll tell us in the comments section if people ask. So, how have your travels impacted you in your career and as a person?
D: My travels have made conversations so much more interesting. Being a cartographer and someone who loves places and maps of them, I love to talk to people and understand what they are talking about.
I have met so many people in the U.S. that reply with a state name when you ask where they are from. This is funny to me. I always ask them to narrow it down, for example one attendee at the TBEX conference said he was from California, so I asked where.
He said, “Southern,” and I replied, “Whereabout?” He said, “Orange County,” and I replied, “Where specifically?” He said Santa Ana, and I was able to say, “Oh yeah, I know that area. I have worked in Irvine, Huntington Beach, Brea, and Laguna Beach — all really close by.”
This means that people feel more comfortable chatting in detail, because you have a shared geographic conversation. This can be about where they are from, where they live, or somewhere they have visited.
My travels to some of the more obscure places in the U.S. also allow more instant connections. “Oh yeah, I know where Winamac, Indiana is — I have been there.” People do not expect you to have heard of their small town, let alone visited. And then working with their Police or 911 departments means I have had more interactions with locals, so will more likely know the smaller local places to talk about.
It is funny when I end up knowing a little more about their town than they do, as I like to explore and read about the history of places. That was once a “trick” when teaching people about their map updates, as I did not want to use an example of 1st and Main St. for an intersection if they did not have one (or worse — if 1st and Main were parallel streets)!
As a person, I feel my travels around the U.S., Canada, and Europe have really helped me have a much better understanding for the differences and similarities that we share. I feel that I have a fairly broad education and outlook, but that visiting new places and talking to people who different views from myself is very rewarding — as long as this can be done in a non-judgmental way.
I think travel in general can help remove some of the judgement of others, but working with locals and spending time with the same people for a week (or several weeks) can really help get a better sense of a place and their local issues. I often find local development or road construction interesting, and will check on it much later or have that to talk about on a return trip. It is fun returning to a place and seeing what has changed, even places other may pass over as boring.
TT: Fabulous. What advice do you have for readers about travel, art, and learning?
D: My general travel advice is do “enough” preparation. Know the main things about a place, but listen to the locals when you get there. My main form of travel is a little unusual, as I spend all day teaching mapping classes, and then have the evenings spare. This means I would check any museums or attractions that have a late open night during the week.
My specific aspect for my future travel has led me to research other artists, arts organizations or arts centers. I have also been in direct contact with artists doing similar work, such as finding body painting artists in California that like my work (message them after they like/follow in Instagram for example) and ask them questions, such as, “Do you know of a location where I may be able to set up?” So, for my intended travel, having a local point of contact and someone already interested in what I am trying to do will really help.
TT: What are your options and different styles of work for creating fictional maps?
D: My maps have evolved a lot since I was five, and now are pieces of art! I am excited when people want to buy an original or a print from me. They are essentially buying a piece of my imagination.
I create a variety of styles and on different surfaces, including paper, wood, board, canvas, and photographs of interesting things that look like terrain and skin. I use fine nibbed pens for a lot of my work, and acrylic paint pens for some canvas pieces, and also when drawing on bodies.
I have original maps at a variety of prices, as the cost is really complexity based. A large, dense city takes longer to draw than a rural area, for example. I also offer custom maps where you can have a list of important things (people, pets, places, events, etc.) added to a base map I have created.
I also create full commissioned maps that can be a full family history, and are a discussion with the customer to ensure I can creating a plausible place that can contain a life story and family tree and geographic elements from someone’s life. These can get quite complicated and large depending on the customer preferences.
If readers have any questions about my maps or are interested in discussing options for custom maps, commissions or your own Human Terrain map then I can be contacted via email at email@example.com or Instagram DM and Facebook Messenger or Twitter. Many Thanks!
TT: Thank YOU, David, for the inspiration and beauty you bring us with your creative map-making art! Readers, what questions or comments do you have?
The author, Lillie Marshall, is National Board Certified Teacher from Boston who has been a full-time public school educator since 2003. She launched Teaching Traveling in 2010 to share expert global education resources, and over 1.6 million readers have visited over the past decade. Lillie also runs Around the World “L” Travel and Life Blog, and DrawingsOf.com for educational cartoons. Do stay in touch via subscribing to her monthly newsletter, and following on social media with the links below!