Volume 75, Number 28 | Nov. 30 - Dec. 06, 2005

Courtesy of Paula Scher

Paula Scher goes postal on her map of Manhattan, now on view at the Maya/Stendhal Gallery through December 17.

Mapping the world, through color and words

By Jerry Tallmer

Poor little Utah. Well, poor not-so-little Utah. On the first map Paula Scher ever made of the United States—“The United States From Memory, by Hand”—she forgot Utah. By the time that work had appeared as the back cover of the 1989 American Institute of Graphic Arts (AIGA) annual, she had remembered Utah “so I put it in the water, with an arrow.” The Pacific water, that is.

Her much, much, larger United States, a 9 feet high by 12 feet wide acrylic on canvas in “The Maps,” Ms. Scher’s one-woman show at the Maya/Stendhal Gallery far west on 20th Street, not only has Utah in the right place but in a brighter sand color that makes it stand out from all the other 49 dark brown, blue, green, and gray states.

Even people who’ve always loved cartography (and you are reading one of them), have never seen anything like the maps in this exhibit. To begin with, they’re big.

Here’s Long Island, for instance, a cream-and-pink, seven-foot lobster drowsing between a Long Island Sound and an Atlantic Ocean aswirl with inky sea currents of hundreds, maybe thousands, of close-packed Long Island place names like Roslyn, Roslyn Heights, Plandome, Roslyn Estates and Seacliff.

Here’s Africa in black, white, and gray, fewer place names but enough, and more magical.

Here’s South America in five or six bolder, brighter colors. Here’s an older, dingier, duller Europe. Here’s Washington, D.C., a five-foot cockeyed Scrabble board of thickets of place names, street names, bridges, dead ends, avenues. Here’s Greater Los Angeles, a candy-colored, impenetrable web of streets, avenues, freeways, and suburbs.

Here’s a 10-foot, asphalt-colored Manhattan, lying horizontally like a patient etherized upon a table, fed through the IV’s of 20 bridges and tunnels while bandaged head to foot by large white zip codes. And here, friends, is “Florida 2000,” red precincts and blue precincts, a sore thumb thrusting down between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. If you look close, you’ll spot some ballot counts swimming among all these place names.

“I understand a place through color and words,” says Paula Scher. “We all understand the world in a particular way whether we’ve been there or not. I was asked to do India, and India has a soul, so I did it. I was asked to do Nantucket, but I have no feeling for Nantucket at all.”

Chelsea resident Paula Scher, a blonde-helmeted handsome woman in her middle 50s, is, in her own nonchalant words, “then and now a famous graphic designer, with a struggling business.” (The business is the prestigious Pentagram outfit on Lower Fifth Avenue, of which she’s a partner.) One of the many examples of her work you may have seen without knowing it are the programs, billboards, and other graphic accoutrements of the Joseph Papp Public Theater.

Design is Paula Scher’s vocation. Maps are her avocation. “My father,” she discloses, “was a mapmaker. There were maps all over the house when I was a little kid.”

Wouldn’t you know it.

Marvin Scher, who died a year and a half ago, worked with the United States Geological Survey as a photogrammatric engineer (“that’s somebody who measures light”). He invented a measuring device called a stereo template, and helped develop aerial photography.

“He told me that maps always look like they’re telling the truth, but they aren’t. They’re inaccurate. All maps lie.”

As a member of AIGA, she agreed, as a joke, to paint for them a small, two-foot map called “New York, New York, Actual Size.” It somehow got put up at auction “and somebody spent $1,000 for it. I was very impressed.”

A year and a half later, AIGA asked her to put her hand to the front and back covers of their annual. “There would be no fee, but they would pay up to $1,000 expenses. If you had no expenses, you got to keep the $1,000.”

She did a front cover dominated by a surreal eye, and, for the back cover, that “United States From Memory.”
It was habit-forming.

“I started painting these small, cute maps that Marvin and Ruth Sackner, collectors in Miami, liked. That went on for a period of time, until I got bored with the scale of them. I wondered what would happen if I went to a very big scale. The small ones had been cute, acerbic, silly, full of snide comments. As they got bigger, they developed soul.”

She paints her very big maps in a very small room at her and her husband’s country house in Connecticut. Husband Seymour Chwat, artist, has a studio there too. Every so often he wanders in to where she’s working, takes a look, and tells her she’s spelled this name or that name wrong.

“I say: ‘Too bad—that’s not the point of this painting.” In fact the thousands of names packed into her pictures get no proofreading at all.

The large USA map—the one “where I was nice to Utah” and put it back in the right place—took six months of three-day weekends to complete. The exhibit covers six years’ worth of work.

Scher says her maps “are really the opposite of what I do here” at Pentagram. Though her actual design work “is intuitive and very fast,” most of her time, she says, is spent “persuading committees and clients to make things—whereas with the maps I make anything I want.”

For all that, she became uncustomarily nervous when an artist friend, Jeff Scher (no relation), got gallery owner Maya Stendhal interested in Paula Scher’s maps.

“I was very afraid to show them,” Ms. Scher says.

You don’t seem like a very afraid lady.

“Well, it’s very personal, and incredibly obsessive. The maps are getting more and more insane. As a designer you’re expected to make things. This work is very private. I felt opening night I was walking around naked.”

The show is at Maya/Stendhal, 547 West 20th Street, (212) 366-1549, through December 17.

Reader Services


Email our editor



The Villager is published by
Community Media LLC.

The Villager | 487 Greenwich St., Suite 6A | New York, NY 10013

Phone: 212.229.1890 | Fax: 212.229.2790
Email: news@thevillager.com

Written permission of the publisher must be obtainedbefore any of the contents of this newspaper, in whole or in part, can be reproduced or redistributed.