Maps are usually seen as tools. But they can also be art.
Consider those pre-modern maps of the world full of sea monsters and inaccurate coastlines. While of minimal use as navigational aides, they remain a visual delight and a window into how their makers viewed the world.
There’s a bit of that idea behind “Compass Roses,” an art project of this year’s Dollar Bank Three Rivers Arts Festival.
Two friends from Pittsburgh came up with the concept while vacationing together last year on Mauritius, an island nation in the Indian Ocean.
“Maps are really a way to start looking at a place, and start to kind of understand a place,” said critic and curator Nadine Wasserman.
“Some of my best experiences when I was traveling was you know really getting into a place based on someone else showing me what to look for,” said Renee Piechocki, an artist, arts consultant, and former head of the city’s Office of Public Art.
Piechocki and Wasserman recruited Pittsburgh artists to picture how the city looks to them – and not just visual artists, but also writers, poets, even dancers and musicians.
“We really gave them the liberty to do what they wanted, and to interpret not just a location, but it could be anything they wanted, any way. A trip in their own head, or a trip into the sky,” said Wasserman.
Compass roses are the ornate little figures on maps that show the directions -- north, south, east and west.
And some of the 20 maps do resemble conventional maps. One, by Eric Boerer, of bicycle advocacy group Bike Pittsburgh, depicts a cycling tour of local sites of radical activism, like war resistance and abolition. Fran Flaherty offers “Finding LOVE in Pittsburgh,” a scavenger hunt.
Artist Shaun Slifer, meanwhile, chose to explore a half-forgotten slice of local Native American history. Slifer is known for projects that interrogate how we interpret history; some years ago, he was part of the Howling Mob Society, which erected, guerrilla-art-style, historical plaques offering a pro-labor account of Pittsburgh’s Great Railroad Strike of 1877.
For Compass Roses, Slifer created “The Land That Held The Lenape Settlement of Shannopintown,” commemorating a village that in the mid-1700s sat along the Allegheny River in what’s now the upper Strip District.
“It was the last indigenous settlement within the borders of what is now Pittsburgh,” said Slifer.
Historically, that stretch of river is perhaps best known as the spot where a young George Washington nearly died in the freezing Allegheny River in December 1753. Little is known of Shannopintown itself, which was apparently named for an indigenous leader. (A 1730 letter survives in which Chief Shannopin pled with Pennsylvania’s governor to stop sending so much rum “into the woods.”) Slifer drew by hand what’s been on the site since, including landmarks like the 31st Street Bridge, and industry from the old Armstrong Cork Factory (now luxury apartments) to Uber Advanced Technologies Group.
“I would like people to think about the layers of history under the city that they live in,” he said.
Other Compass Roses maps qualify as visionary art.
For Christiane Dolores, her “Strange sound became a spiral” started when she heard a bizarre noise – seemingly emanating from the sky -- one night nine years ago in her home, in Knoxville.
“I remember my hair standing up. Something inside me just realigned itself,” she said.
A few nights later, she felt compelled to go for a drive, “revisiting all the places that kinda held a moment for me.”
She “realized later I had kinda created almost like a spiral, you know, going all the way out to Cranberry,” she said. “Going through Mckees Rocks, [where] I used to get my hair done … by a really well known singer there. Going as far as Duquesne, where my best friend Curtis Reaves lives.”
For Compass Roses, Dolores reinterpreted her trip as a kind of abstract map.
“It started off as a colored pencil drawing, a little bit of watercolor, set it on fire [laughs] I put it in the mud. And then I did several different kind of layers digitally. And then [for] the spiral, I drew on top of that digital print with a white pencil.”
Other participating artists include Reaves, Edith Abeyta, Nick Childers, Veronica Corpuz, Tuhin Das, Sherrie Flick, Toby Fraley, Steve Gurysh, Carolina Loyola-Garcia, Jeffrey Krsul, Marcè Nixon-Washington, Diane Samuels, James Simon, and Sara Tang.
Piechocki herself contributed “Cry Me Three Rivers,” which she called “a map, field-tested, personally, of places where you can cry alone in downtown Pittsburgh.”
She said the maps have already changed how she sees Pittsburgh. She cites poet Yona Harvey’s “Northside Notations No. 01 (Covid 19 Edition),” which uses only words to evoke the sights and sounds of Federal Street, on the North Side (“airbrushed fingernails fanning the air”).
“I will never look at Federal and North the same way again because of her map,” said Piechocki, who lives just a block away. “It really helped me see that space through a different emotional level.”
In a time of pandemics, street protests and political upheaval, Piechocki says, maps might point fresh paths forward.
“It was really great to look at these maps and remember that artists are important right now in helping us see new alternatives,” she said.
The maps were commissioned by the Three Rivers Arts Festival, and Piechocki and Wasserman had hoped to have free hard-copy versions of the colorful maps to hand out at the annual event. But the festival has gone virtual this year because of the coronavirus pandemic. So the maps are instead available online for download -- and hopefully for interactive use by users looking for new ways to find a way.
Addendum: After this story was published, it was announced that Compass Rose maps would be available free at the City of Pittsburgh's Downtown farmers' market this Sun., June 14, from 9 a.m.-1 p.m. The market is located on 11th Street near the David L. Lawrence Convention Center.