An Interview with Jen Adrion

By Elissa Marcus

This month at the Ohio Art League’s gallery, you’ll find Jen Adrion’s “Amateur Cartography” gracing the wall as this month’s Member Curated Exhibition (that curator being Haley Boehning). Ms. Adrion’s work consists of maps—on the east wall, are maps of the United States, and on the west wall, maps of Ohio.  Each map is statistical in nature; with titles like “Average Amount of Rainfall”and “Average Percentage of Sunny Days”. These statistics are illustrated with symbolic icons (raindrops, or curving, orange lines, ears of corn).   The icons fade and intensify in subtle gradients of color that become more defined the further you are from the map.  Up close, the maps read like a Magic Eye; their intense hues and repeating patterns lead one to move even closer– expecting, in vain– to catch a zebra or sailboat!

I caught up with Ms. Adrion the day before the opening this past Wednesday to learn more about her passion for all things cartographic.

EM: Tell me a little bit about yourself and the show.

JA: I’m a graphic designer; I went to CCAD and studied advertising.  But I also had a fine art life there too, and they never seemed to merge.  This show is interesting to me because it is my graphic design work in a gallery setting.  It’s the merging of the two things that I love.  This work is based on statistics and I’ve been working with data sets for a long time in my personal life—now it’s starting to cross over into my professional life.  It’s pretty ideal to not have to manage all these different portfolios and careers, to have them come together is “the dream”.

EM: What do you do for a living?

JA: I’m a freelance designer, and I have been since I’ve been in school.  I teach at CCAD as well.  It’s taught me a lot, probably more than I teach the students.  Also, I have a website which I run with my partner, Omar.  We sell prints of art maps that you can find at  That’s another great example of my fine art and designer sides merging—it’s going pretty well, and people seem to like it; I’m really happy about it!

EM: Are maps new territory (haha) for you?  Or have you always had a thing for them?

JA: Well, maps are beautiful.  I’ve always been interested in them, visually. I’ve been exploring broad definitions of maps ever since I was in school.  I like taking something concrete like complicated climate data, and taking it from something really defined to something more abstract, even beyond observing political boundaries.  Also, to most people, maps containing all this data are ugly and congested looking.  I was attracted to the idea of  being able to present this statistical information in a way that was not only illustrative and informational, but also created an aesthetic experience for the user.  With this show, I’ve moved away from the extreme abstractions I was doing a couple of years ago, and heading back into creating maps with real usability.  In my collaborative work, even, they can get quite traditional-looking, compared to what I was doing.

EM: Why did you choose to use such a subtle gradient in your maps?

JA: On the screen I couldn’t even tell the difference in the colors! When you’re working on the computer screen, with your image blown-up 450%, you can’t even tell what you’re doing any more. Once I printed them, it was still difficult for me to pinpoint the gradations and where exactly they changed.  But now that they are hung, you can definitely tell.  I had never had the opportunity to look at them from a distance, and I’m enjoying the effect.  But bottom line, I believe that I used a subtle gradient because I consider the gradient to be secondary to the shapes of the map itself—the political boundaries and the icons inside.

EM: What is the significance, if there is one, to not including a legend on each map?

JA: That was definitely the issue in college, “Why aren’t you telling people what they are looking at?”  There are a couple of reasons.  The graphic shapes within the map give a clue as to what you are looking at.  For example, rain drops for rainfall.  That one is the most obvious, but I believe all of them are pretty representative.  Then with the gradations, you know, if it’s darker, it signifies that that area on the map is rainier.  But I don’t spell it out for the viewer, because I enjoy provoking that little moment of discovery, when you realize what exactly you’re looking at.  It makes you want to go around and figure out the other ones.

EM: What are your tools?

JA: In this case, the work was done digitally in Adobe Illustrator, and the color was done in Photoshop, which is new for me.  I never use Photoshop because I usually prefer the precise look that Illustrator gives you.  I print them out at home on archival paper with a great big Epson.  I love it because then I’m able to print proofs.  And as a screenprinter, I appreciate having that magical machine on my desk that cuts out so much time—no more heading out to the lab, and putting in a bunch of time before you figure out that something is wrong with the screens, let’s say, and then having to make a new one.  I have a library on my computer at home of all the shapes I like to use in my maps. Those that have been following my work for a while, they’ll be able to recognize the symbols that I use.

EM: Why don’t you sign your work?

JA: I don’t sign them for an exhibition, but I will sign them on request.  I think that my signature messes up the aesthetic of what I’m trying to do.  And as a graphic designer and a perfectionist, I really like things to look clean and precise. Especially in this gallery with all these sharp angles and white walls; then you have the individual pieces which are clean and look like they were made by a computer, I feel like putting my signature on it would look dumpy and messy.  It’s the only thing that looks like a human hand had anything to do with it.  It’s not necessary!

EA: What is more important, subject or process?

JA: The subject, definitely.  I’ve tried a bazillion things, even cutting the icons out of paper, anything to get them off of the computer, but it wasn’t working out like I wanted, and I thought—let’s just get it done!  So definitely, that the pieces are done is way more important to me than the process of making them.

EM: What are some of the accomplishments you are most proud of?

JA: Well, some of the work I’ve done with Thesearethings has been featured on, Apartment Therapy and Design Sponge.  And that truly is amazing, because these are sites that I have been looking at for years thinking, “Oh, how did you find that?  That’s so cool!” and to have something that you created being featured on these sites is a great honor.

EM: What are your goals?

JA: It’s really nice that my art and design lives have started to merge.  And as that business has grown, I’ve ended up cutting out a lot of the freelance jobs I was doing.  Eventually, I’d like to stop doing that altogether, but continue doing my work with maps and data sets but for really cool clients like The New York Times, and Wired.  I follow all of the people who currently do this kind of work online, as well as upcoming designers and I definitely want to get to that point some day.

With all of the success she’s already having, I think that her goal is well within reach!  We met again the following day, during the opening, and Ms. Adrion was in high spirits.  A drag show was taking place in a runway right outside the Ohio Art League, and another artist was having an opening at the Ohio Arts Initiative. I mentioned that the South Campus Gateway seems to really be coming into its own on the Arts scene.  She said, “I’m just glad that my show gets to be a part of all of this,” she said, gesturing to the growing crowds outside and in, squinting to catch sight of a zebra or sailboat in her maps.  The lights flashed, fake eyelashes were batted, Lady Gaga blasted and the chocolate fountain inside flowed, and I was certainly glad to be there as well.

You can check out Jen Adrion’s “Amateur Cartography” at the Ohio Art League’s gallery space in the South Campus Gateway from now until June 26th.