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Thursday, March 06, 2008

United Stateses

Thanks to a tipoff from Louise, I found out that the Target down the street opened ahead of schedule yesterday morning. It's really weird to be in a space that cavernous and gleaming a short walk from home, but it gave me the opportunity to buy a whole bunch of $3.99 picture frames to put this on the wall in our dining room:

A month or so ago I had some IPS folks over for dinner, and as everyone was getting close to leaving, I asked if they would "help me with an art project." As I recall, a wary "Uh, okay..." was the consensus answer to my vague request. But I just asked everyone to draw an outline of the United States in freehand on copy paper.

This idea is not totally original -- I saw a post on Strange Maps a year or two ago about someone who had asked elementary schoolers to draw the United States, with interesting results. But despite its minimal originality, I think it makes a good piece for the dining room (and cheap, too, since labor was free!). The U.S. is a shape everyone is familiar with, but it's complicated enough that it's pretty hard to get it all that accurate. This allows the idiosyncracies of each person's past experience, spatial memory, and drawing style to produce pictures that are all clearly familiar and linked to each other, but also very different.

If you want to check out the squiggly details, you can click on the image for a larger version. Thanks to (starting with the bottom row, from left to right) Zachary, Sarah, Heather, John, Emily, Louise, me, Maura, and Lauren for helping out. (And to Adam, even though his United States did not make the cut.) John messed with Mexico, I went wild with Michigan (and got the "thumb" backwards), Lauren stuck with basic identifying features, Sarah was the only one who included the Mississippi delta, and I'm not sure what's going with Zach's...


lj said...

That's a neat idea (although when I looked at the picture before reading I wondered if you'd started volunteering at a school). It's impressive to me that there are some shapes that we can recognize through a really large range of distortion. Same thing happens with letters.

Once me and a couple other people (this was in Madison) challenged ourselves to draw the US with all the states freehand. It's difficult, but of course in a regional way: I can do the middle third pretty well but get totally lost in the Northeast, while the guy from NYC was the exact opposite.

Matthew said...

Can you give more detail on who drew North Carolina so well, and what the text balloon says and points to?

Benedict Anderson gave a talk while we were at Carleton, arguing that the image we hold of national borders has a real impact on creating a cohesive idea of the "nation," which makes it difficult to change a well established border (since it messes with people's picture of their country).

This also makes me think of a strong bad email where he puts underpants on various state shapes.

hannah said...

This reminds me of a book i have that includes a map drawn by the author's mother, who was originally from Russia. It is the last illustration here:


It also reminds me that once I challenged my friend Paul from California to draw a map of the United States (after he asked me if Minnesota was next to Kentucky, or something equally inane). His map had the basic shape okay, but for states he had California, Oregon, Texas, Florida, Maine, and Las Vegas. Then "rest unknown."

teague said...

Hannah, I actually saw that Maira Kalman map when she initially posted it to her blog...it's awesome. For a while I've wanted to do a project where I ask kids to draw maps of their neighborhoods, because I think it would reveal interesting things about both the drawer and the subject, as Kalman's map does, but unfortunately I think my idea runs into logistical and possibly legal issues.

Matt, that was drawn by John, who is from NC. (I would note, however, that the bottom part of his NC's coast peels away from the U.S. coast.) The caption says "Chapel Hill (not Duke)," as John went to UNC and nurses a healthy antipathy to Duke.

That observation by Benedict Anderson rings true to me. Perhaps this is also a reinforcing factor in the strong sense of state identity in Texas, which is blessed with a particularly distinctive shape. And come to think of it, Iraq is kinda blob-ish. Maybe that's the problem. (Also: Poor Illinois has its underwear on its head!)

LJ, I'm gonna give that a try sometime soon...I've been into U.S. geography since I was a kid, so I think I'll get all the states, but they'll be pretty distorted.