Can You Guess What These Intricate Portraits Are Made of?

After finding a box of old maps in his grandmother’s house after she passed away in 2001, Matthew Cusick started a path of creation that would become his life. He uses maps to collage nostalgic images of people and landscapes, of oceans and skies. We caught up with Matthew for an insight into his thoughts and creative process.

Could you explain the motivation behind using maps to create your collage works? How did you come across this method? 

The maps provided me an alternative way of working that helped me overcome many of the obstacles I had been struggling with as a painter.

wave 30x42, 1/5/12, 11:19 AM, 8C, 8864x12270 (555+780), 125%, Custom, 1/30 s, R84.3, G58.1, B69.9

It wasn’t a preconceived decision, but it was a pivotal moment in my life. One day I just cut up a map that was lying around my studio and glued it down on a painting. That was it.

Matisse made his breakthrough with the color red. After painting Harmony in Red, in 1908, and The Red Studio, in 1911, he understood exactly where he needed to go with his work. He had always used red, but not until he let the red completely dominate did he finally discover his true voice. Working with maps has guided me to a new sense of artistic purpose, clarity, and freedom and it continues to inspire me. But I am still looking for my red Matisse.


Is there an overarching message or feeling you hope to inspire in your audience?

I try not to think about how my audience will respond to my work. I need to be inspired by something specific in order to begin, but as the piece nears completion it will hopefully take on a life of its own.

I am very process oriented, and the process involves parameters rather than specifics. So a lot is left up to chance. I ultimately want the work to transcend interpretation.

A map becomes obsolete the moment it is created. It must be redrawn over and over again to reflect the constant reinvention of the world. This is essentially what interests me most about maps and why I continue to use them to make art.

map woman 40x45, 11/1/11, 5:20 PM, 8C, 9674x10890 (105+1920), 125%, Custom, 1/30 s, R87.0, G60.9, B73.5

This is also why I keep returning to the wave. A wave embodies the most powerful and unstoppable force of nature yet also radiates with serenity and beauty. I suppose it is this iconic ambiguity that captivates me the most.

I hope my audience responds to my work in a similar way—with a sense of seeing something familiar for the very first time.


Could you walk us through the process of creating one of your pieces, from idea to realization?

To begin a new piece I’ll need to select the maps I will work with. This can take some time. Over the years I’ve assembled an enormous archive of maps. Thousands. After I’ve selected the maps, I’ll start making a detailed line drawing on my panel.

Piece by piece the maps are glued to the panel. As the composition progresses I’ll start to cut and chisel away new shapes directly on the panel of inlaid maps. At this point it becomes very organic and intuitive.

It usually takes around 350 hours to finish a 4 x 6 foot panel. Some map collages will take forever to come to fruition. Sometimes I scrape off all the maps and start over again. Some pieces I’ll work and re-work for years.

14x21, 2/20/12, 11:12 AM, 8C, 9044x12945 (450+0), 125%, Custom, 1/30 s, R84.8, G58.7, B68.6

If you could go back in time to when you first began creating art, and give your younger self one piece of advice, what would it be?

The decision to be an artist will influence your life in profound ways. At times you will find yourself trapped in a labyrinth of frustration and doubt.

You will need to retrace your steps back to the time when making art was something you never questioned. So make sure to unravel a spool of thread as you proceed.


Who inspires you?

My daughter. The ocean. Clouds at sunset. The moon and the stars. Music.

What is your greatest dream as an artist?

To one day design and build my own studio with a map library on a high cliff overlooking the sea.

But I will be more than satisfied if I live a long life and keep making art. I often forget what a privilege it is to be an artist. It’s not easy, but I can’t imagine doing anything else.

See more of Matthew’s work on his website.


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