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Art / North America: Portrait of a Continent

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The map itself, and a closeup of the map's cartouche, at a scale that simply cannot do it justice. Clearly, this isn't your parents' Hollywood Atlas.

Jessica Leigh Hester: It's so cool though to look at it and feel a sense of, like, kindredness. Like, immediately when you zoomed in, I was like "yes, that is recognizably my home." You just happened to choose, to represent that area, something that is like, so crucially fundamental to the way that the community identifies itself and thinks about itself. I think that's really cool.
Anton Thomas: That is amazing to hear. I'm glad you feel that way because that is the idea that kind of drives me and the decisions to make about what to include.

North America: Portrait of a Continent is a hand-drawn pictorial map by New Zealand-born cartographer Anton Thomas. Coming off the heels of his prior work, the similarly-designed South Asia And Australasia, this map proved to be Thomas' biggest undertaking thus far, being drawn on a 5 x 4 ft. canvas over the course of 4¾ years. As its name implies, the map depicts North America with immense detail to the continent's vast geography, history, and culture.note 


The map has been featured in several noteworthy publications, including National Geographic and the Washington Post. An early iteration of the map appears in NACIS's Atlas of Design Vol. III. Thomas has also mentioned ideas for a possible companion piece (such as a coffee table book or an app) to help further explain some of its details.

Further information, and a shop for viewers to purchase their own copy, can be found on the artist's official site.

Tropes about the map and the creative process behind it:

  • All There in the Manual: Several of the map's details are explained further on Thomas' blog, videos, and press features.
  • Animal Motifs: National and state animals appear readily in their appropriate locations, totaling well over 400. Just a handful of examples include a polar bear near Churchill, Manitoba (and several other places in the Arctic tundra), a lobster off the coast of Maine, sled-dogs headed for Nome, a clay-coloured thrush in Costa Rica, a white raven in Haida Gwaii, a bighorn sheep (among several other creatures) in Nevada...
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  • Art Evolution: Halfway through production, Thomas found that his skill evolved so much on that one project, it necessitated a re-work of the earlier portions, which required an electric eraser and an X-Acto knife to erase the penned-in portions. His colors became bolder, his outlines became softer, and several details were re-done for greater accuracy. The website has a few "Before" and "After" Pictures to show the difference.
  • Awesome Moment of Crowning: A crown floats over Triple Divide Peak in Montana in reference to both Glacier National Park's nickname as "the crown of the continent" and the mountain's status as the hydrological apex of North America.
  • The Bermuda Triangle: Where the map's cartouche is located.
  • Bigfoot, Sasquatch, and Yeti: The famed Bigfoot traipses through northern California in its iconic pose.
  • Comes Great Responsibility: Thomas has mentioned on his website and his presentations the importance of an accurate yet respectful depiction of Real Life locations.
    It progressed reasonably fast at first. But my skills kept improving, as did my mind for geography. I learned that no place could be rushed. Drawing real places comes with a responsibility you must take seriously. These aren’t just abstract pretty pictures, nor do you want them to be cartoony. You’re making art out of people’s homes! Places are complicated, and place is integral to who we are. It's hard to define right or wrong with map art, but you must proceed with care and patience.
  • Cosmic Motifs: The map's corners where the earth curves outward bare a starry sky displaying select constellations: The Big and Little Dippers grace the northwest corner overlooking Alaska, Cassiopeia sits in the northeast, Orion is in the southwest, and Taurus is in the southeast.
  • Eiffel Tower Effect: This is a pictorial map, after all. Flora, fauna, landmarks, and other such iconography associated with certain locales covers the landscape, (for example, the Wright Flyer in Kitty Hawk) while cities are depicted by their iconic skylines. Fittingly, the town of Paris, Texas is marked by its replica of the Eiffel Tower.
  • Flying Saucer: One hovers right above Area 51.
  • Internal Deconstruction: The final addition to the map is a cartouche that essentially divides it into its two major elements: the minimap depicts North America itself in a more natural state, free of the myriad details seen on the main body, whereas the surrounding frame is comprised entirely of a selection of said details and iconography. Of note is Thomas' sign-off being carried by a macaw, symbolic of how the content is what carries him up, not the other way around.
  • King of the Dinosaurs: The World's Largest Dinosaur appears northeast of Calgary.
  • Our Ghosts Are Different: Applied to buildings rather than people — the skyline of Port-au-Prince is depicted with a ghostly aura in respect to the 2017 earthquake. This is meant to be his solution to the Warts and All conundrum detailed below — acknowledging both the trauma that happened and the spirit that lives on.
  • Regional Riff: As mentioned above, Thomas considers music very important to a place's identity. Oftentimes, a musical instrument we be accompanied by musical notes playing a bar from a locale's invoked Signature Song. For example, Muddy Waters' guitar appears just below Chicago playing "Sweet Home Chicago", and a tres in eastern Cuba plays "Guantanamera".
  • Scenery Porn: Mountain ranges, forests, canyons, waterfalls, volcanoes, and cityscapes, going from the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon National Park to Big Sur in California to Mt. Thor in Nunavut to the Palouse River of Washingtion to the White Mountains of New Hampshire, and so, so much more.
  • Shout-Out: Among other things...
  • Shown Their Work: Oh, so very much... to put it all into perspective, These two blog posts delve into how just much thought and research went into the map's depiction of Cuba.
  • Sled Dogs Through the Snow: In addition to the one in Alaska, another dog-sled crosses the Greenland expanse.
  • Stuff Blowing Up: Yucca Flat, being the site of the most nuclear tests in the world, is depicted with a billowing mushroom cloud.
  • Warts and All: Thomas strives to take this approach in his cartography, whilst remaining politically neutral. He doesn't want to sugarcoat the uglier parts of world history, but he also acknowledges that sites of traumatic events don't deserve to be completely defined by said trauma.
    Trauma is not evenly spread around the world. Some countries suffer earthquakes, others don’t. Some burn, some flood, some freeze. These earthly forces are interwoven with the story of civilization, which too has a profound imbalance of pain: prosperity uplifts some, while poverty restrains others. This can present unique challenges for cartographers, not least those making pictorial maps. When we choose to display trauma while elsewhere beauty flourishes, might this harden existing notions of despair?
    Focusing on the beauty of the world is compelling, not merely because we want maps and art to be beautiful, but because cartography is critical in how the world is viewed. Acknowledging trauma can deepen shadows that already depress places and people that deserve the dignity of beauty. But life is not utopia. Rather than decorate the world, I’d like to engage with it. First and foremost a cartographer relies on data, and data has a way of encouraging complexity.
    In creating pictorial maps, the temptation to focus solely on idealistic content is strong. However, beauty is not a matter of good or bad. Truth has a beauty that tells a more interesting and relatable story than any utopia. Even in regions with far more wealth than Haiti I have irritated locals (who are justified in feeling this way) — by drawing smog-belching factories, open-pit mines and grim oil refineries. In parts of Mexico ravaged by cartels I’ve drawn assault rifles and opium poppies. Prince William Sound in Alaska has the sinking Exxon Valdez spilling oil through its waters. In Bhopal, India, I left the cityscape entirely without colour to emphasize the toxic legacy of the Union Carbide disaster. These are reminders of real pain, and I don’t blame residents of such areas if they dislike my depiction. No one wants their home defined by trauma.
    After all, we connect with our land through much more than a lens of despair and disaster. Yet we’re also unlikely to view it as a sunny brochure of attractions and regional iconography. Some places are impossible to imagine without the changes brought on from recent trauma. Port-au-Prince, Haiti is one of those places.
    • His solution for a appropriate depiction of Guantanamo Bay is a bit more humourous — Right below it lies the golden arches of McDonald's, symbolic of both America's capitalist influence and the sole Micky D's located in all of Cuba.
  • The World Is Just Awesome: It speaks for itself.

"I think if you're trying to supercharge your creative journey, sometimes don't worry about getting lost. Just... become the map."

Alternative Title(s): The North American Continent, North America