In February 2012, Jennifer Maravillas set out on foot to every corner of Brooklyn in a bid to collect litter for an art piece titled 71 Square Miles. The colossal ten-by-ten-foot map is a penciled outline of the borough filled in with pieces of loose paper — food menus, church bulletins, newspapers, handwritten notes, lottery tickets, even a dried leaf — with each bit of ephemera standing in for the block on which she found it.
“There’s something interesting about paper that there’s some other story behind it,” the 31-year-old says. “All of these pieces are together on the map, but they all had purposes before it. [Some] were lists. They had a greater story.”
Maravillas has been an artist since childhood. But her interest in maps began in 2009 while strolling through the “crazy,” grid-like city of San Francisco, where she was living at the time. Walking up and down the city’s hills and seeing the grid stirred something in her. “I wanted to see more. I wanted to see all of it,” she recalls. But even that wasn’t enough. Maravillas went on to document her trek in a map of the city. Unlike today’s Brooklyn piece, she drew and colored the blocks in her map of the City by the Bay. After a series of similar efforts involving other burgs, Maravillas decided to upgrade her cartography to include pieces of what she found on the streets. “I realized it’d be so much more meaningful for me and the viewer if those maps were made by things that I got from each place,” she says.
View the full map here: map.71squaremiles.com
Maravillas first visited Brooklyn in 2006 during one of her occasional trips to the city; in 2012 she settled in Prospect Heights and began work on 71 Square Miles. A Utah native, Maravillas says she fell in love with Brooklyn’s quiet, its abundance of trees, its vast space (compared to Manhattan and San Francisco) and its shorter buildings. “I’m sort of a nature person,” she says. “It doesn’t feel like you’re in New York City.”
Projects like these satisfy Maravillas’s eagerness for exploration and travel. Her father was in the military, and his numerous transfers predisposed her to wanderlust. “I moved around. It took a little while to get rid of that military brat in me and settle down somewhere permanently,” she says. Mapping became her way of learning and seeing, firsthand, what life is like for other people.
71 Square Miles is currently on display at the BRIC House gallery’s “Mapping Brooklyn” exhibit, alongside other artists’ cartographic renditions of the borough. The exhibition is a collaboration between BRIC (located at 647 Fulton Street in Fort Greene) and the Brooklyn Historical Society.
BRIC’s vice president of contemporary art, Elizabeth Ferrer, says she discovered Maravillas’s piece online. She found it endearing because Maravillas explored and captured Brooklyn’s “richness” and “complexity.”
“She documented this process by taking the things people leave behind, that they don’t value, but that nevertheless say a lot about who we are,” Ferrer told the Voice via email. “If you look closely you see an array of languages, elements of design, and ideas represented in these bits of garbage.”
Maravillas went out picking mostly in spring and fall. The project was far from glamorous, she admits. “It was really gross. I did wear gloves.” She also did a “smell test” to eliminate objects with foul odors. When it got too hot or too cold to wander, particularly in the winter and summer, Maravillas would get to work in her studio, also in gloves, cutting bits and strips of the collected items to glue onto her map.
Walking more than 70 miles around Brooklyn felt like a tour of the world’s religions, Maravillas says: “There were neighborhoods with strong religious identities. It always feels like reading a book when you go on a big walk.” She currently works as an illustrator and is keen on mapping all the other boroughs in New York City — when it’s warmer. “I’ll start walking again when it’s nice enough and all of my trash thaws out eventually,” she says with a laugh. And she’s welcoming anyone interested to join her in walking around the city.
You can catch a glimpse of Maravillas’s work along with those of other contemporary artists-cum-cartographers every day, except Mondays, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. until May 3, 2015.