If you look at the framed intricate paper cut creations of Karen O’Leary, the first thought that’d cross your mind will be, “I think I’ve seen them somewhere.” Of course, you have…on Google Maps! This is exactly what this architect-turned-artist produces – hand-cut paper maps, albeit without words or text.
Why paper maps without text? Karen explains on blog.etsy.com, thus, “Without words or text, a map becomes a conversation piece. People try to locate where they stayed when they went on vacation, where they live, where they work, where the parks are.”
According to Karen, her paper maps are popular because they offer nostalgia to people who’ve been to that place. The map depicts their favorite city, where they probably got their first job or got married or had a child. This is what drives them to commission a map that not only commemorates a milestone in their life but also becomes a memorable piece of the past.
So, how does one go about searching on a paper map without text? According to Karen, cities can be identified by their elements, streets, rivers, and other bodies of water. This becomes possible due to her painstakingly precise papercut maps that are so accurate that one doesn’t need any descriptors or text.
For accuracy, Karen uses published maps. She draws the grid of the place in pencil on a thick watercolor paper, since this paper has good stability. She then hand-cuts it with an X-Acto blade. Afterward, she meticulously erases all pencil marks. What’s really creditable is her maps are totally handmade and she doesn’t use computers or printers of any kind.
Karen was interested in creativity since childhood. When she turned eight, she already wanted to be an architect. She started drawing floor plans and houses without any formal training in architecture. It was her interest in modern architecture that eventually led her to study architecture.
Karen enrolled in a five-year architecture program at Virginia Tech in Blacksburg, Virginia, USA. And it was here she created her first hand-cut map as part of her thesis. After graduation, she joined a firm in New York City, USA, and made a huge paper map that measured six feet by eight feet. It took her nine months to complete. The best part is, it sold on Etsy.
This was the turning point in Karen’s career, which kickstarted her map business. She left her job and plunged into paper map-making full-time. She established Studio KMO and has been creating maps for the last nine years. She loves the tedious and long process involved in creating hand-cut paper maps and her reward is in the outcome.
Because Karen’s work is neat and accurate, her work sells well. She has sold over 8,000 paper maps since she opened her shop. And her maps adorn both private and commercial premises. She has even created a large Columbus, Ohio map for X-Acto that’s put in their boardroom. In return, she received a couple of thousand blades, her best gift ever!