Map of Our Hearts

Charlotte architect Karen O’Leary creates works of art from simple street maps.

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The places we’ve lived, studied, and vacationed help define us.

Think of the first city you lived in as an adult. Or the neighborhood where you lived as a newlywed. Imagine your honeymoon in Bermuda, an anniversary trip to London, or a dreamed-of vacation, years from now, in Bora Bora.

We can trace our life stories by recalling the places we’ve lived and visited. My Charlotte childhood helped shape me, but so did my college years in Winston-Salem. As did the heady days of working for a Congressman (answering his mail, but still) on Capitol Hill.

And thanks to a Charlotte architect-turned-artist, you can have a custom-made map of the place closest to your heart.

Karen O’Leary thought she’d make a career of designing buildings. Instead, she commemorates the grand city layouts of the world—the wide, elegant boulevards of Paris; Pierre L’Enfant’s Washington, D.C.—with its unmistakable grid punctuated by roundabouts and avenues emanating diagonally from them—and James Oglethorpe’s Savannah, with one public square after another.

But even the humblest hamlet is worth commemorating if it has meaning to you. My parents grew up in Asheboro, N.C. O’Leary’s custom map of their hometown, including their childhood homes, their high school, and the cemeteries where my grandparents are buried, is among the best gifts I’ve ever given them. My family history is encapsulated in that 10-inch-by-10-inch map.

An accidental entrepreneur

“My very first hand-cut map was part of my architecture thesis at Virginia Tech,” O’Leary says. “Architecture school is competitive, and I needed something different from my peers. So instead of drawing, I hand-cut three maps, layered them, and built a custom light box.”

“After college, I was working for a firm in New York City,” she recalls. “In my spare time, I created a map of Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and the Bronx. It was 8-foot-by-6-foot. and took me nine months to complete. At the time, I didn’t have a permanent place to hang it or the resources to frame it. I held on to it for a few years, then it became a burden to lug around.”

She listed it for sale on Etsy in 2009 without fully understanding what Etsy was. “It sold, got circulated around the web, and I accidentally started a business,” she says.

O’Leary has places that help define her. “I’ve always been a city girl,” she says. “While I was living in New York City, I went to a good friend’s wedding in New Jersey. Of course, I ended up meeting a charming boy from Iowa.”

That Iowa boy, Nathan, is now her husband, and they’ve called Charlotte home for eight years. “We love raising our two little girls (Kaia, 5, and Sydney, 4) in such a special city,” O’Leary says.

Since O’Leary’s studio is in her home (“It’s filled with gorgeous morning light, good music, and French Press coffee”), it allows her to “mom” and work at the same time. “My kids often draw in the studio with me,” she says. “They love to create while I’m working.”

Her process is painstaking. Every single map is an original. “All of my pieces are hand-drawn in pencil, and then hand-cut [with an X-ACTO knife],” she says. “Then I go over each cut piece, erasing any marks that are left. This is the hardest, most tedious step. Then, I’m left with a delicate, meticulously cut and detailed, modern map.”

She began by making maps of places she loved. Paris remains her all-time favorite. (“Its urban plan is iconic and visually so beautiful,” she says.)

But she sees beauty in every place. “I look for geographical elements that are unique to each city or town,” she says. “A river, a water’s edge, a town center, a pocket park, highway intersections, rectilinear blocks, rural open space. These elements can identify a city or town, especially if it’s a place you know well.”

Her creations aren’t all city maps. She’s been commissioned to create race tracks, hiking trails, and ski slopes.

And while she may not have an emotional connection to a place when she starts a commission, she does by the time she finishes. “I love the stories behind the maps,” she says. “One of my favorites: A client got a map of Belize, a reminder for her hard-working husband that each day puts them closer to their dream retirement.”

Karen O’Leary’s 10-inch-by-10-inch maps of Charlotte neighborhoods are $125. She has some larger, incredibly intricate maps (of Paris, for instance) that sell for $1,000 and up. Order at Studio KMO (www.StudioKMO.etsy.com), and keep up with her on Instagram at @studiokmo.