Every month, we feature a local artist in our Cafe. This provides our customers with a relaxing environment to enjoy while giving our member-owners and staff an opportunity to showcase their work. This month, you can check out the work of Sara Moulton through April 30.
Sara grew up in Brattleboro and graduated from high school there before heading off to college in Seattle, Washington, where she earned a degree in forestry. While she enjoyed the Pacific Northwest, she missed Vermont and moved to Montpelier in 1985, and began working for the Vermont Agency of Transportation. We spoke with her about working as a Geographic Information Systems professional and how, for her, GIS has become an art form and an avenue for creative expression.
How or why did you first become a GIS professional?
I became a GIS professional in 1989 when the State of Vermont implemented a pilot project to try to implement the first statewide intergovernmental GIS. One of the pilot project sites was with the City of Montpelier. I started my GIS career there but returned to the Vermont Agency of Transportation when they started to implement the use of GIS.
What inspired you to get involved in that field?
I enjoy working with data, and I enjoy working with maps. When I was in elementary school, we were asked what kind of work did we want to do. I said I wanted to work with computers and maps. This was back in the days of mainframe computers and GIS did not exist yet. So, when the technology evolved to the point where GIS was starting to exist, and the pilot project opened up the opportunity, I jumped into it and have been enjoying it since.
What, in your opinion, is the most fascinating thing about GIS and the data it provides?
I like the ability to take raw data and transform it into something visual with geographic relevance. I have been amazed at how much GIS has transitioned during the past 30 years from something that didn’t exist to something that is ubiquitous. Most business websites include a map on their About Us/Contact Us/Location page. Many cars and handheld devices have navigation applications which are based on GIS. Online maps are terrific in many ways, but printed maps are still useful. With online maps, when you zoom out to see the overall picture you lose the details. With a printed map, you can see the overall picture and the details at the same time.
How long have you been exhibiting maps as art, as you are doing in our café in April?
I have been doing it on-and-off since 2014.
What would you say to someone who says, “GIS isn’t art. Maps are not art.”
I see GIS maps as being similar to a cross between landscape paintings and digital photography. You work in a digital medium and are focused on the landscape, but you also interpret the data and have to make decisions about what to emphasize and how. The work might lean more toward the illustration side of the art world rather than the fine art side. It depends on how far one goes into the abstract side of the presentation.
What about these maps inspires you personally? What makes them art in your mind?
I notice different things about the environment when I work with data to turn it into a map. In the case of these maps: Where are the hills and valleys? What are their shapes? What is the pattern of the buildings in town? The GIS maps help me step back and look at the world in a different way.
I like to explore the concept of how much or how little is needed in a map for someone to recognize what is being shown and where. At work, I have to stay more practical and include the full amount of information that people need and expect and to use a cartography style that is appropriate for a government institution, but outside of work, I like to experiment with different approaches of showing the same data. Also, I like to experiment with printing maps on fabric and incorporating them into other objects such as bags and quilts.
What do you hope the viewer’s experience will be when they look at your work?
I hope the viewer discovers something about the environment in and around Montpelier.