The Mapmaker: Check Out Karen M. OLeary’s Local Cartography Art

Karen M. OLeary
Karen M. OLeary

Architecture is the study of buildings in regard to a specific period, place, or culture; mapping is the spatial interpretation of the world around us.  Fuse the two arts, and you get Studio KMO, located in Charlotte, NC.  Owned and operated by licensed architect/artist Karen M. O’Leary, O’Leary shares her love of “city, traveling, and beauty out of the ordinary” with others through her work.  

Born in Seoul, Korea, O’Leary traveled to the United States as a child and grew up in Pennsylvania. After finishing high school, she pursued Architecture at Virginia Tech.  Graduating with a Bachelor of Architecture with a Minor in Public and Urban Affairs, O’Leary’s love of place coalesced into map making.

One of OLeary's maps
One of OLeary’s maps

As an expert paper cutting artist, O’Leary specializes in modern maps, “modern versions of the typical street maps.”  “Navigational maps are so hard to read because they are full of too much information,” explains O’Leary.   “My maps remove all of the unnecessary and leave only the valuable information of a city’s urban plan.”
Inspired by urban environments, O’Leary understands that every city has a story to tell.  By “replacing the common with something more beautiful,” O’Leary enables others to appreciate what comes naturally to her.  The process is “simple in style but tedious in execution,” says O’Leary.  “I use x-acto blades for the hand cut maps and ink pens for the ink drawings.  Then there are erasers, and time, lots of time.”  

Even though the work is intricate and time consuming–larger map cuts taking anywhere from 60-80 hours to complete–O’Leary loves her work.  “I am fortunate to spend my days (and most nights) at the drafting table.  As I’m working on a piece, I get to study the streets and learn all of the features of each city.  I love being able to compare the different cities on paper and then, when I’m traveling, I have a better grasp for how the cities were planned.”

It’s important for O’Leary’s work to be precise and to scale.  Using published maps as a reference, O’Leary painstakingly draws, cuts, and creates maps that capture the “beauty found in everyday objects.” As of right now, O’Leary has over forty cities in the hand-cut mapcut collection and over seventy cities in the city print collection.  Her first ink drawing was of Paris and remains her favorite.  “It’s visually the most graphic, and the streets are iconic,” explains O’Leary.  The most tedious piece she has done is the London mapcut measuring 30” x 22.”  Due to London’s age and its growth over the centuries, streets are irregular and dense. London is “truly unlike any other city I’’ve ever seen,” says O’Leary.

OLeary at work
OLeary at work

Of the many city maps she has not yet attempted, O’Leary is excited to one day create maps of Brooklyn, Seoul, and Sienna, Italy. Besides maps already in her collection, O’Leary also takes custom commissions for original ink drawings and for hand-cut maps. 

Customers can view her current collection at www.studiokmo.etsy.com or contact O’Leary direct at karenmoleary@gmail.com. Originals range from $175-$1400.  More affordable postcards and prints are available from $3-$35.  O’Leary’s work can be seen across the world: The Cosmopolitan Hotel, Las Vegas, Nike Retail Store, Scottsdale, AZ, Hyatt Hotel guestrooms, New Orleans, LA, Four Seasons Hotel Restaurant, Washington, DC, Geo Graphic Book (released 2013), MORE Magazine (Dec 2012), major motion picture Premium Rush (2012), Shelbourne Museum Exhibit (May 2012), Papercraft 2 Book (April 2011), AIA SF Architecture + The City Festival Artwork (2011), Nisha Design Magazine (Jan 2010), plus thousands of private residences.