Kirsten Sparenborg of Turn of the Centuries

My favorite part of COTFA is getting to know wonderful people like Kirsten Sparenborg of @turnofthecenturies a little better. I get to ask the questions I'm most interested in, from people that I admire and am continually inspired by. This is a long one because I wanted to dig into Kirsten's process. Maybe it's my own interior design background and love of space, but I asked tons of in depth questions. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did! When I buy home, I'm going to commission an original watercolor map of Philadelphia to remember our special time there, in the city where my little boy was born! Thank you so much Kirsten! I'm so happy to have you here today.

Tell us a little about yourself. What you do, and how your life has shifted since you had your first child? 

I'm an architect by training (B.Arch Virginia Tech) and worked as an architect and urban designer for several years before earning a Master's of Architectural History at University of Virginia. Then I got married and had a child.  I'd been producing Architectural Map-drawings and related drawings as Turn-of-the-Centuries for several years through my career and grad school, but I began to focus full-time on my "art" business following grad school as I prepared to start a family and be a military wife. I wanted to have a job no matter where the Army sent us, and I wanted to work in a way that fit my family life - flexible and fulfilling. We currently live in Tacoma, Washington (and love it!) and I work at night while 18-month-old Clark sleeps...and during the day if I can get him to nap...and sometimes while he's awake and willing to sort my pens or rip scrap paper while I print and package orders to ship. At night, I work at my large dining room table.  It's big enough that we can still have dinner there without having to put away my work.  We're in a lovely historic apartment and I love the neighborhood, but I hope our next place has a little more room for a studio.  Recently, Clark goes to day care about 10 hours a month so I can work uninterrupted during the day when needed.  That was a juggle for a while, but I feel it's good for him and good for me now.

Your map work is fascinating and so detailed, and very recognizable. Would you share a bit about your process? What draws you to maps? Is it meticulous, organic, meditative, etc? 

First, I love your question: "What draws you to maps?"  Yes -- Maps draw me, and I draw them. Ha ha!

I learned to draw while traveling Europe as an architectural student. Among the old stone hillside towns, I concocted a way of drawing that combined plan, section and elevation which suited my desire to express the feeling, the experience, of the place, not just to replicate what I saw in a single glance, like a photograph.  I call this "experiential drawing."  I'd often walk through a place while sketching as my drawing sprawled over the pages. So, in all of my work since then, I've wanted to convey the experience of a place.  This element of movement in experiential drawing begs for a recording of place - a MAP!  I think my travel sketching was the germination of my need for maps.

Following architecture school, I made a photographic book about small towns in Virginia, traveling all over the state, making daily drive maps in the era before Google maps and iphones. After the book work was complete, I worked as an architect and urban designer in Savannah GA, for seven years. I made lots of maps to describe project sites. These maps were important design tools for us, as they revealed for us, as well as our clients, the relationships of different site elements like roads, land use, building types, zoning. We used pen and watercolor to make these maps. We almost always used historic maps as an underlay to see how the site changed over time and often found inspiration and justification there to make a great project. These experiences and a fascination with Savannah's history led me to pursue a graduate degree in Architectural History at the University of Virginia and write a thesis on Maps of Savannah. 

I started my studio/shop, Turn-of-the-Centuries, in Savannah. I began drawing architectural streetscapes (continuous front elevations of city blocks) and created books of the drawings that fold out, accordion style.  I also created prints of single block streetscape drawings, including some in other cities like Brooklyn, Portland, New Orleans and Philadelphia.  I drew from photographs, free hand.  These were my signature pieces for several years until I became pregnant and started to think about simplifying my work to be more efficient and...more relaxing.  It's a challenge to draw the streetscapes!  So, with the birth of my son, I began drawing and painting city street and block maps.  They're a much more abstract representation of a place, a city.  But, in the abstraction I think there is more room for conjuring one's favorite thing about that place, the essence of it.  The representation is fairly straightforward.  The boundaries of the city are selected to include its most beloved spots - this always includes the historic core. I draw the streets and water, sometimes adding texture for distinctive landscapes like mountains or parks, in black lines of various weights and darken/lighten some lines for emphasis.  This is the City Streets Map.  I use this underlay to create a map that shows only the city blocks, enlivened by watercolor.  This is the Watercolor City Blocks Map. The watercolor map reveals the city's geometry, different developments over time, converging grids that belie a historic shift in city planning or land ownership or folds in the landscape.  This really excites the urban designer in me.  You can talk about the city for a long time, even a lifetime, while looking at these maps. 

Yes! The process is meticulous (I can't help it - I'm an architect!), organic (I love exploring the variations in tone I can achieve with a single color and seeing how patterns evolve as I randomly fill in the blocks) and meditative.  It allows my mind to rest and recover after a day of mothering.  The juggling of tasks, the uncertainty and the frequent interruptions of mothering has led me to realize the depth of my need to work creatively, uninterrupted.  Painting these tiny blocks in the quiet of night also allows me to wander through another place without the hassles of travel.  Lately I've been drawing custom maps that capture the essence of a childhood home or family cabin or mother's garden, not my usual City Line and Watercolor mode. These stretch my creativity more and this has also been fulfilling - but not as meditative.

What do you discover by visually recording these fleeting moments of time when things change so much (and yet so little at once)? Do you feel like you intimately know the cities that you paint?

I try not to be slavish in representing the city precisely at a moment in time.  Cities change and I love this...studying old maps through time to see those changes is fascinating and revealing. An emotional tie to a city is usually what brings clients to commission a map from me and my job is to capture the essence of the city - it's shape, iconic landmark sites and relationships between land, water, topography.  I love feeling that I am having some intimate moments with a city as my brush traces the corners of each block, then fills it in.  I am imagining what buildings are there, who owns the land, what kind of history is held in this block.  Sometimes I know, but often I am just imagining.  The whole experience transports me to another place - this city, but my lived and imaginary experience of this city. 

Has your approach to your artwork (process and the content itself) changed since becoming a mother? Did anything surprise you?

I've become more efficient in both art and business since becoming a mother.  Plan, Focus, Execute. Understandably, my time is short and precious.  I do less custom work and focus on the City Line and Watercolor Maps and LDS Temple drawings, as I have a clear process for making these.  I'm curious to know how my approach will change as my son grows, goes to school, becomes more independent.  I love to learn how other mothers work and care for their children and how their balance of time and priorities evolves with time.  I am gratified to know that this work I do is good for me and makes me a happy mama. Finding ways to work in a professional and healthy manner while prioritizing my responsibility to care for and teach my son is the biggest design challenge in my life lately. Perhaps my greatest surprise has been the support I've found via Instagram, from Paige Ray's Hear Motherhood podcast to COTFA and all the mamas I see doing great things and being real on social media.  

Can you remember the moment where you started to put aside the mom guilt about wanting to create when everyone seemed to think you should be researching more about baby stuff? How did that make you feel? We'd love to hear about whatever you feel comfortable sharing!

Yes!! Clark was almost six months old and I was mothering alone all day and night in a new city with no friends or family while my husband was away for nine weeks of training for the Army.  After Clark went to bed at night, I'd draw and paint until he awoke to nurse, then back to it if it was not too late. Inevitably, I stayed up way too late and he never slept through the night. I think I was sleep-walking that whole summer but I was happy mothering and happy drawing!  Immediately after Clark was born, I worked when I could, to finish client projects before we moved across the country.  After moving and setting up studio again with a fresh start, I cherished the opportunity to reclaim an intrinsic love of drawing and to have this dedicated time for myself each night.  I let other things go that I thought were important to my character, like working out (ha ha), but dedicating time for creative work and business in my life has proved to make for a pretty happy mama. Someday, I'll add exercise back in!

What is next for you? Any goals, projects or dreams you'd like to share so we can help you on your path? We live for that stuff - and it's how Heather and I became partners in creativity :)

I'm really happy about now, but I definitely feel excited about the future.  I want to continue making more city many great cities to explore with my pen and paint, as well as the beautiful Mormon temples, all drawn by commission. I have no shortage of subjects! I designed a fabric line produced this year by Moda and would love to do a line inspired by watercolor maps and landscape patterns.  I think my maps would look neat on tote bags, so perhaps an expanded offering there.  Up next, though, I'd really like to partner with a frame crafter so I can offer the option of a clean, minimal well-made frame to buyers of my prints and original pieces.

In addition to more making, I want to focus on my business by streamlining my processes in anticipation of a five-year marketing strategy that would include advertising.  I have never overtly advertised, just posted what I am doing on my blog and social media, kind of journal-style.  I love the authenticity of this.  I'm grateful to have enough work to always be working in the hours I have, and enjoying what I am doing.  When I have more space and time in my life, I'd love to make more which necessitates more clients and customers which demands advertising.  I love making and sharing this love of maps and architecture with great clients so I need to figure out how to find map lovers, travelers, folks with a love of place and memory who will really cherish an Architectural Map-drawing. 

Thank you, Marissa and COTFA, for helping me to be inspired by other makers and to extend my reach into this thriving community!