Central Park series: data-driven artwork

In this small series, I worked with the axidraw pen plotter and Processing to imagine the new growth happening in early spring in Central Park.

From the warmth of my room, I researched March weather data in Central Park as well as geotagged posts of spring flowers, outsourcing my reference-gathering to the data of others.

I made some simple plots of the weather data using Processing, comparing humidity and temperature by date and plotting the points as small circles.

Cloud cover was additionally represented by adding rings around the circles (the rule was to add one extra ring if cloud cover was between 30% and 60%, two if it was anything over 60%).

With the axidraw, I could then draw the plots accurately and precisely using waterproof artist’s pen directly onto watercolor paper.

I drew lines to create dimensional relationships between the data points, and then “grew” the flowers I’d been researching from home out of the spaces between the data points.

The data formed a “garden” to situate the flowers, and their pattern was dependent on its form, as with the growth anticipated in the season.

The data forms them and gives a structure to their layout, just like the forces represented by that data enable the form of our gardens year over year.

Workshops at Cambridge Friends

I was recently invited by an art instructor at Cambridge Friends school for pre-K through 8th grade in Cambridge, MA to teach a short program as part of their Makers in Residence program.

We discussed the subjects relevant to the different grades and settled on exploring the connection between biological imagery and maps with 3rd and 4th graders, and a more materials-focused approach for 7th graders.

My first class of the day was the 7th grade. They were just starting watercolor, and my pattern-based approach would be their introduction.


I gave a short explanation of what I do and what my inspirations are, and then set out the activity. Students would be sketching out drawing “rules”—something iterative (i.e. building on itself, like a doodle or a mandala) that they could use to fill a page. I asked them to first sketch out four patterns on scrap paper and then choose one to expand on and fill a page of watercolor paper. We used waterproof micron pens so that when we subsequently interacted with the design using watercolor, the pen wouldn’t bleed.


For the 3rd + 4th grades, who were in the midst of learning about maps, I chose to do a shorter thumbnailing exercise on maps and then a materials-based approach to expanding the chosen sketch where we gradually introduced waterproof pen and water-soluble pencils.

I introduced the aesthetic connection between maps and biological imagery, although most students were less abstract and chose to do a map based on an existing place.

I always find I learn a lot from the way students interpret my lessons. Some of the solutions they came up with this time were particularly interesting.

I loved this 3/4th grade project where the student decided to sketch the same map twice—with different (and thoroughly labeled) zoom levels.

It surprised me when the 7th graders complained that they didn’t know how to fill the page before the time was up, even when I provided intermittent time checks. But when I suggested making their patterns larger as they finished up to fill the available space, that seemed to solve the problem—and didn’t ruin the design, as I suspect they feared.

Overall, I appreciated the opportunity to hone some of my workshop materials, especially when it came to using thumbnails and describing iteration as a “rule” instead of the mathematics-tinged words I tend to use like “algorithm” and “fractal”. I hope it helps start the students thinking about alternative ways to use watercolor and new tools to facilitate their own creativity.

“Imaginary Mapmaking” at Peabody Essex Museum

Last weekend I took the train up from Boston to Salem to teach a workshop at the Peabody Essex Museum on connections between maps and biology as part of their participation in the Big Draw festival. The blurb for the workshop was:

Maps and geography surround us in our daily lives, but did you know that the growth of cities had anything in common with the growth of trees, or the cells in your body? In this workshop, we’ll use maps and geography as a starting point to explore the variety of fractal, biological imagery in our world through drawing. Emily Garfield is a professional artist who uses geographic imagery in her work but is just as inspired by the maplike imagery that exists in nature. She’ll present some of how she develops her new drawing projects, and we’ll use these techniques to explore how maps as a graphic format relate to other natural patterns like cells and trees.

Some of the slides from my presentation:

Some of my more biological map artworks

And some of the biological imagery that inspires them

Participants took the materials in different ways! It was a more drop-in event so some people came for a moment to draw something they liked, and others stayed for the whole 2-3 hours and really dug into the material and the maps they found in their minds.

Hubbub workshop

Last month I taught an imaginary mapmaking workshop as part of Hubbub, a children’s book festival produced by Boston Book Festival.
There was a real range of ages, small children and older children as well as the adults with them, and I tried to come up with something that might have some interest for everyone—and be executable within an hour.
I first asked participants to draw some thumbnails. I like teaching thumbnailing (which I remember learning for both high school art and college-level animation classes!) because it helps people get their ideas on paper without resorting to being precious or finicky about it.
Then we chose from those thumbnails to work on a larger drawing. This is the way that I do pretty much everything—I sketch out visual ideas or conceptual algorithms for a piece starting at the smallest scale and continue to develop it as I scale up. The initial concept is usually pretty fully-formed already, so the critical part is to get it down as soon as possible.
hubbub-workshop-2 hubbub-workshop-4
I’m always really impressed with what people draw. Even if they themselves aren’t proud, it’s always fascinating to me to see where people take my instruction and what they bring to it. Everyone has such different ways to map!

Imaginary Mapmaking workshop at Parts & Crafts

I will be teaching another workshop for kids this Saturday November 8 at Parts and Crafts (577 Somerville Ave) from 1-3pm. I’ll have some of my sketches and inspirations handy, as well as lots of materials to get creative with mapmaking!


From Parts & Crafts:

A map-making workshop like you’ve never seen it before, pairing fractals, biology, the patterns of cells and neurons with worlds of our own devising. Hosted by Emily Garfield, a local artist specializing in cartography and flights of fancy. Come for open shop, stay for the workshop!

The class is $25, or $15 for Parts & Crafts members; register here to attend.

Parts and Crafts events are geared towards kids 7-12 years old.

Leaf Print Maps

For a while I’ve been brainstorming ways to combine plants and maps. I was originally inspired by a call for art from the Arboretum, but it’s also been interesting to me since they’re two things I get really excited about so there must be some way they can work together. I had an idea to do something specimen-inspired, and drew out some ideas:


I tried drawing on actual leaves, which was fun but less than archival. But I had more success drawing around leaf prints.

I tried a few ways to make prints, including painting leaves with wash and leaving them pressed against watercolor paper to dry:




The detail came out pretty well, although I was initially disappointed by the spottiness. As I played with the forms, though, I realized I could draw hybrids of leaves and maps, using mapping to fill out the missing spaces of the leaf print. I like how they came out!




The above array of leaf prints was accepted into the Arboretum show, so it will be on view for the reception on Thursday, September 18th from 6-8 and through JP Open Studios weekend (September 20-21) from 10am-5pm at the Arboretum exhibition hall.

Tentacle map!

I recently participated in a Secret Santa swap (yes, way after Christmas because everyone’s busy during that time!) of DIY items. It took me a long time to figure out what to make, but I knew the recipient had some interest in cephalopod themes and decided to attempt a tentacle map. I wasn’t sure it would work, but I would try.

I hadn’t really drawn tentacles going in, so the first thing I did was a quick Google image search to remind myself what they really look like, and see how other artists translated them into drawings. I did some sketches:


I liked the format of the design in the middle so I went with that. I sketched it out at 5″x7″:


then started drawing in parts with pen. It was complicated to figure out how much the map should be the background texture and how much it should curve around the figure. I wanted the tentacles to be apparent but not glaring.

tentacles03 tentacles04 tentacles05

Then I colored it in with very diluted acrylic (I usually use watercolor but I had none on hand)


I think it came out okay! The colors could be more different, and the design could be even more graphic, but overall it seems to work.