Off the Map

Mercator's World - July/August 2000

July 1st 2000
Tagged: press


    Julie Ruff and Connie Brown admit that they didn't have a clue why two hippopotamuses should be swimming in the Atlantic Ocean en route to the New Jersey shore. It was all part of a day's --Actually several weeks' -- work. If hippos had some deep significance for their clients, a couple from Connecticut, then they were more than happy to oblige. Granted, the animals they painted on their canvas weren't the mythic creatures of a medieval bestiary, but they did somehow belong to the iconographic tradition that played a significant role in cartographic history.
    Ruff and Brown, who own and operate Redstone Studios, are modern mapmakers with a lively, not-quite-irreverent-but-close-to-it approach to their work. But they utilize a formal, discursive, representative style that goes back centuries. The maps they make are geographically accurate (except for one where France and England abut Connecticut's Long Island Sound, but that's another story). And they fill their work with traditional decorative and cartographic conventions, such as cartouches, keys, inserts, and even a wind rose or two.
    Ruff and Brown have produced maps of road trips, honeymoons, cruises, family adventures, successful marathon runs, family trees, wine tours, and maiden airplane voyages. "They're commemorative maps," says Brown. "No, they're more custom maps," counters Ruff in the easy banter the two constantly engage in. By whatever name, the maps they make are one-of-a-kind and very personal.
    Paul Theroux wrote, "Cartography, the most aesthetically pleasing of the sciences, draws its power from the greatest of man's gifts -- courage, the spirit of inquiry, artistic skill, man's sense of order and design, his understanding of natural laws, and his capacity for singular journeys to the most distant places." It's a sentiment seconded by Ruff and Brown, but one they explain more simply. "Maps represent that borderline between art and science," they have noted, "and it is that area that interests us most."

   The two women met a decade ago as neighbors in Chappaqua, New York, a northern suburb of Manhattan. "We both had children in school, and we worked on art projects together," Brown says. Both especially enjoyed scientific art --simultaneously, they mention charts and diagrams -- and both loved drawing. But neither had a formal art education, though Brown's grandfather had a studio in Connecticut where, at age three, Brown learned how to mix oil paints. Even at that tender age Brown knew she possessed some artistic talent. As she grew up, though, she realized she had no desire to work as a commercial or a fine-arts artist.
    Brooklyn-born Ruff knew she wanted to take art classes when she went to college at Boston University, but was stymied in her attempt. "At that time, during the 1960s, if you were a declared sociology major you couldn't take art classes," Ruff recalls. That made as much sense as the university's former rule that women couldn't wear slacks to class. "Wear a skirt and stick to your major, I guess," Brown says with a laugh. In spite of the obstacles, Ruff served as director of the Children's Art Workshop in Mamaroneck, New York, during the 1970s and 1980s.
    About ten years ago the women started a more formal relationship, working together to paint murals and cheap old furniture, which looked much better after they had finished with it. "We had a great time doing antiques, but our supply dried up," recalls Ruff. From time to time they painted maps on folding screens, so it occurred to them to do more cartography-related projects, though they weren't exactly sure what. "We looked at book after book of not only maps, but all kinds of scientific drawings. Sometimes we didn't know why we were doing it, we just liked certain kinds of images -- all scientific and most of them old -- and trusted that something would coalesce," Brown recalls.
    When they decided to specialize in maps they read cartographic histories and visited a multitude of map exhibits. "There was a lot to master, and we had to teach ourselves," says Brown. After making a few maps for themselves as test examples, they began in earnest. That was about three years ago. "There was no turning back," says Ruff. "Plus, it was a hell of a lot easier than schlepping pieces of furniture all over New York."

 That particular schlepping may have ended, but as inveterate travelers Ruff and Brown still move around quite a bit. "I've always had visions of faraway places in my head," says Brown, who just returned from a short visit to London while Ruff was off in St. Petersburg, Russia. They've both journeyed throughout Europe, South America, Asia, and India.
    When Brown remarried two years ago, she moved to Hamden, Connecticut, about an hour and a half from Chappaqua. As a result, each woman now has her own studio, which turned out to be a blessing in disguise. Though the partners obviously enjoy each other's company and share humor and a close history -- they say they can talk nonstop all day long when given the opportunity -- they realized that two people can't really work simultaneously on the same map. However, they do consult on the phone daily and meet twice a month.
    Separate studios allow individual time to think, research, sketch, make compositional drawings, and do much of the actual work. They use T-squares, acrylics (which they mix themselves), umber (to give the maps an old-fashioned feel), and unstretched canvas. Their cartographic techniques also tend to be low-tech and intuitive. "Over the years we've learned how to reconcile scales, if that problem comes up," says Brown. "That's essential, but mechanical. The rest, the aesthetics, took forever to master -- print and script styles, for instance. We studied them in map after map and then practiced them for hours and hours to get to the point where it's second-nature freehand."
    She adds, "Every element -- cartouches, compass roses, borders -- we examined and practiced in the same labor-intensive way. Certain extrapolations hit us as we learned that we could employ the colors and design motifs of the place we were mapping -- China, India, Cuba -- to good effect. Cartographers used to do that to a limited degree, but not as an organizing principle." In a Chinese map, for example, instead of using Western-European-Renaissance decorative motifs, they utilized, more appropriately, Eastern ones, including Chinese key borders and a chop (seal).
    Brown and Ruff definitely are not fuddy-duddies, but they do believe strongly in the pleasures of slower-paced methods. "We look back and we're grateful that our pace was unhurried," notes Brown. "We needed time to practice all this stuff and to allow ideas to percolate. There is some virtue in doing things by hand in the twenty-first century."
    Looking around her studio, even a casual visitor notices the Shaker-like simplicity and lack of fussiness. Reference books include the well-thumbed Grammar of Ornament, by Owen Jones, British Country Maps, by Yasha Beresiner, and examples of eighteenth-century American maps from Douglas Marshall's Campaigns of the American Revolution: An Atlas of Manuscript Maps that Brown and Ruff extol for their subtlety and delicacy. "We like these maps because they were done on the go and made, not printed," explains Brown. "They're all handwork."
    In fact, the handwork nature of their own maps and the resulting low production numbers suit them just fine. Redstone Studios finishes around thirty maps a year, and they're booked through 2000. "It's just the two of us," says Ruff, who affirms that it will remain that way. "We work well together. Our aesthetic has merged. We have fun. We're not going to start a factory."

 Although Redstone Studios has received good press (including a TV spot onMartha Stewart Living), most clients learn of them by word-of-mouth. Others hear of them and wonder what it is they do. "When we go to parties people want to speak to us, not the brokers, not the bankers," exclaims Brown.
    Perhaps it's because their profession is unique. They don't know of anybody else making similar kinds of maps. "People say, 'I'd love to do what you do!' and want to know how to make a map, you know, in three easy steps," says Brown. "I tell them that time -- lots and lots of it -- and curiosity are the magic ingredients. There's some artistic dash and lots of fun in this, but we're scholarly drones who spend hours alone working at a snail's pace, and I don't know how much fun our admirers would find that!"
    People are especially curious and intrigued by the idea of biographical mapping. If everybody has a story, everybody's story can be mapped." All significant experiences take place somewhere geographically," Brown says. A more critical view might be that such personal maps are symptomatic of a solipsistic age. Be that as it may, biographical maps are rich terrain, and no one can be like any other.
    Recently, for example, Brown did a diaspora map. It mainly depicted Germany and Poland, from whence the family had come, but also included inset maps of Israel, Seattle, France, and the New York skyline. All had personal significance for the family members, especially the individual recipient. Brown calls it an example of a "This Is Your Life!" map.
    Most of Redstone's maps are commissioned for men by women. Brown thinks that's because maps are a form of art with which men feel comfortable. Usually, clients have a general notion of what they want. Many of the maps commemorate anniversaries, birthdays, or other significant life events. Ruff and Brown encourage participation, and usually there's lots of it.
    "We're almost like biographers," explains Ruff. "It's alchemy for the clients, making their journeys through life hallowed somehow, transfiguring geography," adds Brown. Both point out that there's often a strong psychological component to the process as clients reflect upon their pasts. They send Ruff and Brown personal letters, photographs, and even other maps. They've suggested poems and offered reams of prose.
    "We try to hone it down, because we don't want them to look like Liberace maps," explains Brown with a chuckle. The biggest map they've made, of Stockbridge, Massachusetts, was seven feet by ten feet, but most run considerable smaller, averaging three feet by four feet. Prices start at $4,000.
    Many maps recount journeys, which isn't surprising, and some clients are hesitant to map beyond the exploration-discovery-travel box. "People think that if they haven't been to the Himalayas," Brown says, "their story isn't exotic enough."

  In Human Nature in Geography John Kirtland Wright argues that the true geographer is distinguished by the possession of imagination -- or wonder -- toward the stimulus of Terra Incognita, which in some manner and form is converted into a personal Terra Cognita. By this he means simply that the true geographer is not merely a copyist, but brings reflection and meaning to the world described.
    And when Ruff and Brown assist others in thinking about themselves, they find they usually learn a thing or two as well. Brown, for example, recently had the world of Cuban poetry revealed to her while working on a map of that island country. Ruff did a map for a client about his ancestors who had settled in Kansas. She admits she was initially a little unnerved by the project because she had to begin with a map of Kansas's counties, which are rather uniformly rectangular, and found this visually boring. But after working out a history that included cattle routes and wagon trails, train robbers and double murders, she got excited by what she was making and soon was as interested in the end result as the client was delighted by it.
    He won't be alone. This summer Ruff and Brown are giving a workshop at the Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum in New York, part of the Summer Design Institute 2000, which is exploring how design can promote innovation, critical thinking, and visual literacy to educators and their students. "Maps are perfect to incorporate into the curriculum for science, history, mathematics, and for memory," says Monica Mundstuk, program coordinator for schools at Cooper-Hewitt, who said that Ruff and Brown were chosen on the basis of both their pedagogic and their mapmaking skills.
    Sometimes the latter is tested. Brown mentions that she and Ruff weren't comfortable making a map commissioned by the Homestead Inn in Greenwich, Connecticut, because Germany and France had to be shown adrift in the Long Island Sound. The lack of cartographic accuracy didn't sit well with either of them, but there was a reason for the geographic scramble. "The chef was German and trained in France, and the wife, with whom we worked on the project, wanted those pieces of his life geographically represented," explains Brown.
    The hippos swimming towards New Jersey were less problematic for the map artists. "They're imaginary characters that travel around with us" explains Susan Richmond who, along with her husband, commissioned A Map Commemorating the First 25 Years of Marriage of Christopher and Susan which now hangs prominently in the living room of the Richmonds' New Fairfield, Connecticut, home. The Hippos bring a delightful sense of whimsy to an otherwise geographically accurate map. It's something Ruff and Brown bring to their work --and life itself.

Susan Ludmer-Gliebe is a writer based in both New York and France and a regular Mercator's World contributor. The Web address for Redstone studios is