Editor's note: The following essay was published in Resource Library on June 6, 2016 with the permission of Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art. If you have questions or comments regarding the text, please contact Intuit directly through either this phone number or web address:


Courttney Cooper Maps Chart Artist's Path

By Melissa Wiley


Before science claimed cartography for its own, mapmakers also worked as landscape artists, painting from the same palette for both canvases. Today the disciplines still share much in common. Both remain portraitures of place -- intimate in their precision. Both likewise allow glimpses into the person at work behind them. Yet maps' use for practical purposes also makes them more apt to slip wholly into the realm of science.

For as long as cartography has existed, however, artists have reminded us that all maps begin with their maker, a man or woman who doesn't look down on our world from a lofty distance but lives somewhere among us. From the maps populating Vermeer's interiors denoting pride in Dutch mercantilism to Jasper Johns' attempts to subvert cartography's pretensions to dominance over terra incognita, maps have served from their inception as art in which viewers may get lost as well as means of plotting directions. They have made the swerve of side streets and sweep of rivers more mysterious for being seen within a larger context. Perhaps most fundamental, they have, in the process, helped us all rediscover our relationship to place.

As artists continue to ground maps in human experience, they help close the distance between the world's vastness and our own existence. Cincinnati artist Courttney Cooper has done just this since a young age, honing his cartographer's instinct while embracing the personal peeking through his side streets. Cooper glues together repurposed paper from his day job at Kroger for maps serving as time capsules of both his city and his life within it. Drawn with ballpoint pen from a memory of a lifetime spent walking Cincinnati's neighborhoods while using street maps for reference, these aerial images document the city's changing landscape as well as Cooper's evolution as an artist. Their level of detail speaks both to Cooper's affection for Cincinnati and the extent to which we are all shaped by our environment.

For more than 12 years, Cooper has partnered with Visionaries + Voices, a Cincinnati-based nonprofit supporting artists with disabilities by providing them with studio space in addition to art supplies, exhibition opportunities and access to the larger art community. His work -- displayed in art spaces including Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art and the permanent collection of the Cincinnati Art Museumm -- he says allows him to share part of himself with others that might otherwise go unspoken, making the connections facilitated by Visionaries + Voices particularly important. By expressing this, Cooper also echoes the fact that even the most realistic cityscapes function as self-portraits of their creators. Seeing these maps in person, it becomes obvious that Cooper alone could have made them.

At the February 2016 opening of his exhibit at Intuit, titled Zinzinnati Ohio USA: The Maps of Courttney Cooper, Cooper freely made additions to his most recent map with a pen taken from his pocket. Noting that he'd forgotten to add certain details in the northeastern section, he dismissed the fact the piece was hanging in a museum as determinative of the work's degree of finish. Cooper alone decides when a work has reached its conclusion, demonstrating his maps are no more stagnant than his city's development.

The need to preserve the face of a place in time has driven cartographers from the beginning, though often with more of an eye toward commerce than personal self-expression. More than 2,000 years ago, map making had its genesis with Phoenicians designing their routes for trade across the Mediterranean. Then in the second century A.D., Ptolemy became the first to overlay the globe with lines of latitude and longitude. He made travel across seas less precarious while imbuing his drawings with a symmetrical elegance.

Yet even while heralding the dawn of science, the beauty of Ptolemy's maps still astonishes. The Prussian blue of oceans dotted with tiny ships forces us to look longer than strictly necessary, pleasing us visually in spite of the maps' inaccuracies. Renaissance renderings later continued to depict the Four Winds at maps' corners, infusing cartography with mythology. To the most empiricist-minded observers, these maps' masterful ornamentation suggests that people subscribing to their share of superstitions are living on these vast landmasses writ in miniature. A human hand, they also seem to whisper, has conveyed the sensibilities of its maker.

Cooper, however, takes this license even further. Reclaiming cartographers' right to lavish their work with their own perspective, he records his feelings regarding certain celebrations or change of seasons before he even begins plotting his coordinates. Text underpins his work's entirety, as words and phrases form the first layer of any grid or parks to come. Those remarks still legible to the viewer once the rest are covered by trees or buildings Cooper leaves to chance, lending what he does reveal of himself an organic quality. Quotes from Animal House and other beloved movies appear frequently, as do references to conversations he has overhead at work. In this sense, these maps follow as much in the tradition of comic book artists as those of the Renaissance or wry modernists. They blend artistic genres as well as arts and science.

Many of his most joyous works feature the city during Oktoberfest, when its residents celebrate its German heritage. When asked by Krista Gregory, Visionaries + Voices' exhibition director, what interests him about German culture, Cooper cited a long list of German foods and beers. If a city is a collective, if thousands of people attend a given street festival, each person in attendance has a slightly different experience, these maps implicitly remind us. While some may have avoided the crowds, Cooper enjoyed himself in a way worth remembering. These are landscapes, after all, of his interior as much as his outer world, a kind of visual diary. They can become exercises in empathy if we let them, enhancing the beauty already given.

Maps have long been among humanity's inventions that wed aesthetics perfectly to function. Like bicycles and umbrellas, their design dazzles the eye while serving a utilitarian purpose. To decorators' delight, maps continue to do more than help us travel from point A to B. They reflect the shifting lines of a world too awe inspiring not to attempt to render on paper. Through them, we can see where we're standing as much as where we're headed. In this respect as in others, Courttney Cooper's creations are the rule, not the exception.


About the author

An Intuit volunteer and Chicago resident, Melissa Wiley writes for Chicago-area publications such as the Chicago Book Review and Chicago Stage Standard and writes her own creative nonfiction, which has seen print in numerous journals and literary reviews. She serves as an assistant editor at Sundog Lit.


About the exhibition

Zinzinnati Ohio USA: The Maps of Courttney Cooper was on display at Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art from February 5-May 29, 2016. The exhibit was curated by Intuit board Vice President Matt Arient. "The history of maps as art goes back hundreds, if not thousands, of years," explained Arient. "Courttney Cooper's hand drawn maps of Cincinnati add another layer to this long legacy. Stitched together from various pieces of recycled paper-reminiscent of road maps often stuffed in car doors and pockets-the level of detail Courttney lays out speaks to our innate sense of both memory and place."

Resource Library editor's note:

The above essay was reprinted in Resource Library on June 6, 2016 with permission of Intuit, which was granted to TFAO on June 3, 2016.

Resource Library wishes to extend appreciation to Debra Kerr, Executive Director, Intuit: The Center for Intuitive and Outsider Art, for her help concerning permission for publishing the above essay.

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