Off the Map

The Hartford Courant - February 17, 2008

February 17th 2008
Tagged: press

DURHAM, Conn.—From a young age, most of us are familiar with maps. They show us how to get where we're going, or outline the borders that give us a sense of the world we live in.

But the maps Connie Brown paints are different. They tell personal stories the routes a runner used to prepare for the New York City Marathon; the journey a couple made to China to meet their adoptive baby; a map immortalizing a Midwesterner's beloved farm. Each is painstakingly hand painted by the Durham artist after months of consulting with her clients.

The resulting canvases reflect Brown's attention to detail: the farmer's yellow tractor peers over the green landscape of his farm; an inset charts the elevation at each mile of the runner's race; a temple and Buddha highlight sights the couple visited on their journey through China.

Brown started her mapmaking career at a PTA meeting in 1989, when she met another stay-at-home mom, Julie Ruff, with an interest in art and experimentation. Neither had a background in cartography. Before having children, Brown had earned her master's degree in English and taught at a prep school.

Ruff and Brown agreed to meet once a week in a studio to have some "creative time for adults." For a while, they focused on buying old items at flea markets and reselling them as hand-painted artifacts. But in the early '90s, Brown realized she needed to make more money to sustain her family. That's when she hit on the idea of custom-designed maps, and the two formed Redstone Studios.

Soon Brown and Ruff were hitting the libraries, studying the design of old maps. Their first canvases came together very slowly.

"It was not as easy as it looked," Brown said.

The breakthrough came in 1998, when an editor at The New York Times decided to publish a short article about their business. Almost immediately, calls flooded in.

"Then we were in business," Brown said. "Doing something we didn't know how to do."

Since then, Brown, 56, has been working nonstop. Her partner retired four years ago, and today Brown works out of her basement with part-time help from her husband, Duncan Milne.

Their home is easy to spot. A gold and black sign marks the shingled 19th century schoolhouse on Main Street by its old name: Durham Academy. Downstairs, Brown and Milne work surrounded by brushes, books, paints and, of course, maps.

Brown usually focuses on about three commissions at a time. First comes the process of story gathering. Clients send photos, maps, old diaries and sometimes more. When Brown worked on the canvas for the adoptive couple, she received a box full of personal artifacts.

"It was literally a treasure chest," Brown said.

Next she begins the design. With each commission, Brown learns a new design vocabulary, she said. For a map of a Montana ranch, she's researching Depression-era cowboy style. Another painting, made to commemorate her son's time with the Peace Corps in Burkina Faso, is bordered with an African textile pattern. Each detail, down to the lettering, reflects the sense of a particular period or place.

"It's my job to marshal information and images and then scatter them spatially," Brown said.

Planning a painting can take anywhere from a month to more than a year. Then she carefully begins the intricate brushwork, using acrylics to get the watercolor-like detail of the maps. Painting a canvas takes two to three months to finish.

Milne helps with tasks suited to his strengths as an architectural engineer. He was the first to say, "Let's do it," when Men's Vogue magazine asked Brown to take things into the third dimension and create a globe. And it was he who studied dozens of satellite images to plot the exact expanse of the Hudson River watershed for a commission by the Beacon Institute in New York. That project is now tied to a school curriculum on the watershed and a documentary about their work.

"It was a real milestone," Milne said. "It makes you feel like you're contributing something other than something pretty that hangs in people's living rooms."

In 1999, Liz Perry commissioned a large work for her father, Vice President Dick Cheney. The map of the Civil War exploits of Cheney's great-grandfather hangs in his office near the White House. Brown and Ruff presented Cheney with the map over lunch with him and President Bush.

Brown's clients also include globe-trotting CEOs and the New York Public Library, and her maps have been featured in such magazines as House & Garden and Forbes.

Small paintings begin at $5,000, and the largest have sold for as much as $50,000. There are some affordable options for those with a modest budget. Limited-edition prints of maps of places like Martha's Vineyard, Tuscany and East Africa sell for $300 each.

Brown currently has a yearlong waiting list. And she said she finds each assignment interesting and challenging.

"Sometimes it's cartographic, sometimes it's a new design vocabulary," she said. "I get to learn something different every time."

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