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Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas

Though Denis Wood had been mapping things since elementary school, he had never really thought of himself as a mapmaker until Ira Glass, interviewing him for This American Life, asked him if he made any maps himself. What he ended up talking about was Singing and Dancing: A Narrative Atlas of Boylan Heights, incomplete and unpublished though it was. Since the interview drew attention to the atlas it has been fairly continuously on display in one form or another. It was published by Siglio Press as the book, Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas, in November, 2010.

The project grew out of desperation. Assigned to teach a landscape architecture studio in his second semester at North Carolina State – this would be spring 1974 – and with zero knowledge of landscape architecture, Wood taught what he knew: how to pay attention to the environment. Since his students were bright and graphically literate, he pushed them to map the neighborhood in ways that would fully exploit their acumen and imagination, what the neighborhood smelled like, for example, what it sounded like. (What is the sound, the smell of landscape architecture?)

The project rapidly acquired a momentum of its own and in a series of studios in the early and mid-1980s grew into Singing and Dancing: A Narrative Atlas of Boylan Heights. This “narrative” atlas – a subject Wood theorized in a presentation to an school atlas conference at the University of Calgary in 1986 (“Pleasure In the Idea: The Atlas As a Narrative Form,” Cartographica,24(1), Spring, 1987, pp. 24-45) – advanced the thesis that neighborhoods are “transformers,” forms of organization that transform individuals into citizens and citizens into individuals, that mediate between the natural gas fields of Texas and the burner on your stove, between geologic history and a stroll downhill to the store, between the universe and the stars you can see through your window. The atlas tried to establish this with maps of the neighborhood along a rich diversity of dimensions: stars visible from the neighborhood, geology, underground infrastructure, trees, traffic signs, property ownership, assessed property values, fences, Halloween pumpkins, wind chimes, fall leaf colors …

Until recently only 40 some pages of a projected 125 had ever been completed, but during the past year work on the atlas began anew. For the forthcoming Everything Sings maps have been redrafted, drafted maps have been finished, and new maps have been made. Below is a list of places where the original atlas was reproduced or exhibited.

Click here to order Everything Sings.

Click here to view some of the original versions of the Singing and Dancing pages from the mid-1980s.

1989 Our Town, a program of the Brattleboro Museum and Art Center, Brattleboro, Vermont. Wood presented the completed pages of the Boylan Heights atlas in an evening talk and the next day gave a walking tour. Sheridan Bartlett described the atlas and the tour in “What Do They Drink in Westminster? Teachers and Students Explore Community in Southern Vermont,” Small Town, November-December 1990, p. 4-11 (the atlas and walk on p. 6).
1992 Wood reproduced the underground map in The Power of Maps, Guilford, New York, in 1992, p. 19.
1998 Ira Glass interviewed Wood on This American Life, and as it turned out, most of what he put on the air was about the Boylan Heights atlas. Several plates from the atlas were put up on the This American Life website, which is here.
2001 Four maps were included in the exhibition The World According to the Newest and Most Exact Observations: Mapping Art + Science, at the Tang Teaching Museum at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York, March 3-June 3. This earned the atlas a paragraph in the Boston Globe, 2 May: “Contemporary artist Denis Wood demonstrates different ways to know your environment in a series of drawings called ‘Dancing and Singing: A Narrative Atlas of Boylan Heights.’ He maps his neighborhood in terms of Halloween pumpkins, sidewalk graffiti, heel marks, and fences made from chain link to wrought iron to picket, each denoting a different level of wealth and style.” Four images from the project were reproduced in the gorgeous catalogue, The World According to the Newest and Most Exact Observations: Mapping Art and Science, pp. 80-81. These were original art, sketches for maps, not the final plates.
2002 Genius Loci Symposium, which accompanied the Genius Loci exhibition at SCI-Arc, Los Angeles, 17 March. Wood presented the atlas as a member of a panel that included Norman Klein and Eddo Stern/Jason Brown.
  “They’re All Over the Map,” by Sara Steindorf, The Christian Science Monitor, April 9, pp. 11 and 16-17. The underground map from the Atlas occupies half of page 11.
  New London, New Hampshire, where the Vermont Institute for Natural Science was holding its Community Mapping Program Summer Institute at Colby-Sawyer College, 26 June. Wood presented the atlas as part of an evening talk.
  The Atlas earned a paragraph in Karen Romano Young’s Small Worlds: Maps and Mapmaking (New York, Scholastic, 2002), in a call-out box (p. 40) headed, “Mapmaker: Denis Wood: Cartographer Denis Wood has made many maps of his town, Boynton Hills, Illinois. Wood mapped the sewer system, including the drains, hydrants, and manhole covers,” and so on. Given the transposition to Boynton Hill, Illinois, it’s likely she only heard the This American Life interview, but knew how to spell Wood’s first name from The Power of Maps which is in her bibliography (but which she obviously hadn’t read).
2003 “Two Maps of Boylan Heights,” was a feature in Katherine Harmon’s beautiful You Are Here: Personal Geographies and Other Maps of the Imagination (Princeton Architectural Press, New York, 2004, pp. 104-107). The piece comprises a little essayette and three maps: a cropped pumpkin map, a newsletter map, and a little locator map (first publications for all three), each oriented in a different direction.
2004 “Downtown Neighborhoods: What Is and What Will Be” was a show featuring the Atlas at Raleigh’s designbox, 315 Bloodworth. Their email invitation to Wood’s lecture featured the “Stars” plate from the Atlas. This was picked up and published in The Independent, March 31-April 6, 2004, p. 51. Fifty people attended the talk while across the evening over 200 checked out the atlas.
  “Book urges us to discover the maps in our minds,” was a review in the Sunday News and Observer, May 23, 2004, p. 5G, of You Are Here, which devoted two paragraphs to the pumpkin and newsletter maps.
  Excerpts from the overhead map appeared on the front and back covers of Two Lines: a Journal of Translation: Power, 2004. Two Lines is a project of the Center for Art in Translation in San Francisco.
  Princeton Architectural Press did a second printing of Kitty Harmon’s You Are Here in which the Atlas maps were printed in their correct orientation.
2005 The street map from the Atlas was reproduced in Jean Robertson and Craig McDaniel’s Themes of Contemporary Art: Visual Art After 1980, Oxford University Press, New York, 2005, p. 79, in the chapter on place and art: “In the early 1980s Denis Wood created a series of maps …”
  The pumpkin and associated maps from You Are Here were featured on a segment of the A&E show, Breakfast with the Arts that aired March 13th, anent an interview with Kitty Harmon about You Are Here.
2006 The traffic and pumpkin maps were featured in the “Ce n’est pas le monde” “comic book” which Wood and John Krygier presented and distributed at 13th Annual Critical Geography Mini-Conference (Columbus, Ohio), the North American Cartographic Information Association annual meeting (Madison, Wisconsin); and in 2007 at the Monticello Symposium sponsored by the Association of American Geographers and other scholarly groups (Charlottesville, Virginia). The atlas was also hung at the last venue.
2007 The whole was exhibited in Local Color, a show of five artists/artist groups whose process of art-making and idea generation is in some way fundamentally informed by location, curated by Paul Coors for Publico, an art gallery in Cincinnati, Ohio, November 30-December 30.
  The Ira Glass interview was replayed as a special part of NPR’s fall fund-raising programming. The producer asked if they could mount any more maps, and seven of them went up on a flickr site linked to the show page on TAL website.
2008 John Krygier published the atlas as it exists on his Making Maps: DIY Cartography blog, high resolution images, headlined by an installation shot from the Publico show, together with commentary.
  The underground map was published as a double-page spread by Ecotone, the creative writing journal of the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, pp. 44-45.
  Julie Jean, La Colle 5, April 2008, “Correspondence with Denis Wood, March 7, 2008, Part One,” and “Part Two,” unpaginated (mostly about the Boylan Heights atlas and the Ira Glass interview).
  Ryan Vu, “What Google Earth Doesn’t Show You,” Independent 25(21), May 21, 2008, pp. 19-23. Under a photo of Wood laid out on a Heezen-Tharp map of the South Atlantic, was “his famed ‘jack-o’-lantern’ map shows the distribution of affluence in the Boylan Heights neighborhood.” On p. 20 there’s the power line map. The street map, run small, decorates the contents page. The maps were omitted from the internet version but there were active links to the DIY site.
  Most of the atlas was hung at an exhibit at Golden Belt Arts Collaborative in Durham that was put on by the North Carolina Community Cartographies Convergence. It was up for almost two months.
2009 The atlas was included in Place, Identity, and Memory, an international exhibition of artists books, at the Gracefield Arts Centre in Dumfries, Scotland, May-July; in selected small showings in the region; and in Stranraer in September-October, to coincide with the Scottish Book Festival in nearby Wigtown. The exhibition was organized by the artists collective Iris, which also produced the amazing catalogue.
2010 The “jack-o’-lantern” map was reproduced in xtine burrough and Michael Mandiberg’s Digital Imaging and Collage (New Riders, Berkeley, 2009).
  The atlas is published by Siglio Press with an introduction by Ira Glass!! under the title Everything Sings: Maps for a Narrative Atlas. Siglio silmultaneously publishes six of the maps printed on vellum in a foil-stamped portfolio, slipcased with the book, signed and numbered, in an edition limited to 25. Siglio puts up seven of the maps on its Facebook page
  John Krygier announces publication of Everything Sings on his Making Maps: DIY Cartography blog, including a photo of a stack of the just released book, 9/7; then three of the maps with details and text excerpts on 10/26
  Everything Sings is featured on Ira Glass’ This American Life blog on 10/14 with links to the radio interview on 1998 amd the Siglio site.
  One of the maps, “Lester’s Paper Route in Space and Time,” sprawls across the cover of the Nov/Dec issue of Poets & Writers. Inside the atlas is pronminently displayed on p. 69 with other “indie innovator” books, the Lester map is again reproduced on p. 72, and the atlas is described on p. 73
  A book launch, sponsored by Siglio, Quail Ridge Books, and the Boylan Bridge Brewpub, is held 11/16 at the brewpub.
  Everything Sings, with a reproduction of its jack-o’-lantern cover, is reviewed by John Murawksi on the book page of the Sunday News and Observer, 10/31, p. 7D
Denis showed early versions of three of the maps in Everything Sings in the art exhibition, Local Histories: The Ground We Walk On, in Chapel Hill’s new temporary art space, January 18-April 29. The show was curated by UNC’s elin o’Hara slavick and Carol Magee.
© Denis Wood 2010 - 2021