Artists-in-residence offer a different kind of mapmaking


Using cartography as an art form connects our personal story to a public one and allows us to visualize our own historical perspective in The Garage’s “Memory Mapping” project.
Publicity image. Using cartography as an art form connects our personal story to a public one and allows us to visualize our own historical perspective in The Garage’s “Memory Mapping” project. Publicity image.

Recent construction has changed the ways a lot of us navigate Charlottesville. For some, it’s physically changed the mechanism by which we travel: a commuter who used to savor the peaceful walk to work might now ride a bike just to get past all the noise and dust more quickly. Or perhaps it’s only changed the routes we use to get places: “Well, if you get off before the Park Street exit and then take the side streets…” Either way, our mental maps have shifted. 

If you’re like me, though, your personal routes and maps are constantly evolving. The longer I live here, the more landmarks change, places accumulate memories, and side streets reveal themselves. The warehouse with windows full of geraniums is now a successful barbershop. A house that was a point of fascination for me years ago has come to be known as the house of a good friend’s parents now. You get the idea.

As part of the New City Arts artist-in-residence program, Laura Snyder and Mara Sprafkin have been working with guests and staff at The Haven to create hand-drawn mental maps. Thus far, the project has resulted in the creation of approximately 30 maps, each representing one person’s perspective and memories related to Charlottesville.

As a resident or visitor in a place, we all develop these mental maps to give our lives a spatial and geographic reality but also meaning, past and present. To translate these landmarks and routes of our lives into a writing or drawing is to share them with others. Which is basically what any map does, though this type of mental mapping is much less standardized than, say, a Rand McNally atlas shoved into your glove compartment.

Technology has made personalized mapping more public. Whenever you geotag an image or social media post, you’re adding a landmark to your map. Over time, these digital imprints form a holistic map of our individual worlds—favorite coffee shops and bars, where we choose to vacation, and memorable distractions from a routine. However, Snyder and Sprafkin would like you to try a more hands-on approach.

Cartography can show the social, political, and lived realities of a place. Maps can fulfill purposes beyond navigating and accurate representation. A map on a 1976 cover of The New Yorker is a great example. The hand-drawn Saul Steinberg map pokes fun at New Yorkers’ narcissism by equating the length of a single Manhattan block to the rest of the United States. It charts the mental longitude of a population rather than the literal latitude of our nation.

Italian artist Alighiero e Boetti also re-imagined uses for cartography with large, embroidered world maps such as his “Mappa del Mondo.” Produced between 1971-1994, these works focused on the ever-evolving geopolitical nature of nations by filling in shapes of countries with the design of the corresponding national flags at a specific moment in time. These maps don’t describe location, they describe power.

A Charlottesville native, Snyder holds a masters in visual arts from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México. She has shown her work internationally in galleries, museums, and independent art spaces. A Brooklyn transplant, Sprafkin received her master of fine arts degree from Columbia University and has also exhibited extensively.

Snyder and Sprafkin’s current project grew out of one that Snyder completed in the historic neighborhood of Getsemaní in Cartagena in 2012. As Snyder explains, “I got interested in critical cartography, and was involved in a community mapping project while living in Colombia that allowed me to better grasp the power of maps and the idea of using maps to generate dialogue between community members about shared spaces. The mapmaking was a crucial part of documenting and making visible the memories and history associated with the neighborhood and the deep ties that the inhabitants had to it.”

All of the community memory maps that the artists collect during the Charlottesville project will be displayed in an exhibit at The WVTF and Radio IQ Gallery, with an opening reception on June 6. By presenting the diverse maps together in one place, the artists hope to help create a greater sense of understanding of Charlottesville and the people who are our neighbors.

The public is invited to participate in the mapping project by attending the free community mapping event at The Garage on May 9 from 5-7pm. And don’t worry about honing your cartography skills in advance. Sprafkin assures that “participants only need to show up with their own memories.”

For those interested in the artist residency program hosted by New City Arts and The Haven, new applications will be accepted through June 7. More details are available at

What’s on your map?

Tell us about it below.

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