Re-routed. It’s not often that life’s surprises cut to the heart, but that’s what happened to artist Karen O’Leary when a hand-cut map born from her fifth-year architecture thesis turned her career as an architect into one as a thriving studio artist.
Simple, modern, graphic, powerful—this original, hand-cut map lay the foundation for O’Leary’s business, StudioKMO. Based on a site map she first produced for her thesis before graduating from Virginia Tech, the founding piece was a 6-feet-by-8-feet hand-cut map of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and The Bronx. When she casually decided to list the map for sale on Etsy in 2009, the juxtaposition between the map’s impressive scale and its handcrafted intricacy caught the attention of the design community, sending O’Leary’s work to top design blogs. Requests for other custom maps came pouring in, enough to eventually prompt her to leave her architecture job for a studio of her own.
O’Leary’s city maps honor the beauty of the urban plan, stripping away typical navigational details like text and symbols. Land and water are represented by negative space, bringing the eye to delicate webs and grids of streets. The tension between the cut-away spaces and the painstaking grid left behind reveals the complexity of the urban environment. “I’ve always loved the idea of making an impact on the built environment through thoughtful, modern design. My artwork, while not architecture, is evidence of my architectural background and love of minimal, modern design,” explains O’Leary.
Settled in Charlotte, North Carolina, with her husband and two young daughters, O’Leary now gives her days to the slow process of creating her art. Part of the marvel her pieces inspire is the breathtaking amount of focus and precision required to produce them. She starts by drawing a line-ink map of a place on thick paper. These intricate drawings offer their own appeal, and O’Leary sells them as originals and prints. To create a hand-cut map, the artist then takes the ink drawings one step further and spends hours with an X-acto blade, carefully cutting away.
The tediousness of executing these works is not an obstacle for O’Leary. “I’m most inspired by the process,” she says. “Each day is new, and I cherish the opportunity to work on new projects. Usually, I do not have a personal connection to the cities I create, and I can see it more as a piece of artwork finding beauty in its elements.” Big cities—London, New York, Paris—make up much of her work, but so do smaller destinations, like colleges and hometowns. “I often create custom pieces, which have such great meaning and nostalgia associated with each place,” says O’Leary.
Although the artist may not share a personal connection with all the cities that inspire her work, O’Leary knows that maps can be deeply meaningful, a grid of moments and memories and feelings. Perhaps that is what her work does best: distills a place to the beauty of its connections.
View O’Leary’s current collection of drawings, prints, hand-cut maps, and custom commissions at etsy.com/shop/studiokmo.