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The art of Map Fest

As Chicago hosts a 'Festival of Maps,' a number of artists are finding inspiration in cartography.

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At a recent art opening in Chicago, the Carrie Secrist Gallery was given over to maps. Considering the gallery's owner represents Antonia Contro, an artist whose work has long alluded to travel and exploration, the display wasn't entirely foreign. A little more unexpected was what Ms. Secrist had said a few days earlier.

When asked for someone else who could speak to the appeal of maps, Secrist replied, "Basically the entire city is talking about maps right now." She went on, "Anywhere you turn, you'll find something" – conjuring an image of pages from a Rand McNally Atlas whipping down the Windy City's streets.

Rendered on a map, the cultural institutions taking part in Chicago's "Festival of Maps" (www.festivalofmaps.com) – the event to which Secrist was referring – are a series of some 20 red dots. (The map, incidentally, is by Rand McNally, headquartered in the city.) Not since a 1952 Baltimore exhibition has the country seen a citywide celebration of cartography on this scale. Nor is Chicago alone.

Cartography today is ubiquitous and accessible. The Internet has made it so that just about anyone can be a cartographer; the simple click of a mouse lets you map the distance from A to B. Yet, even as our mapping has become more sophisticated, with the uncanny accuracy born of global positioning and satellite imagery, it's the aesthetic of maps with the least utilitarian value that seem most to capture our imaginations: Playful or politically minded map art that transforms a familiar landscape. Ancient renderings printed on vellum or Egyptian papyrus.

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