Joseph Illidge

Abrian Curington - Maps to the Stars

by MTF Labs | MTF Podcast

Abrian Curington is a visual storyteller, map maker and graphic novelist. She uses her beautiful hand drawn illustrations to communicate scientific discoveries and information to a wide and non-specialist audience.

Under the umbrella of Blue Cat Co, she brings together stories and illustrations that explain the world in new and unexpected ways. Her work includes a comic book about Covid, a map of meteorites under the ocean, and graphic novels about lightning sheep and a bell that makes no sound.

Blue Cat Co


Dubber      Hi, I’m Andrew Dubber. I’m Director of MTF Labs, and this is the MTF Podcast.

“A map does not just chart, it unlocks and formulates meaning. It forms bridges between here and there, between disparate ideas that we did not know were previously connected.”. That’s not mine. That’s a quote from Reif Larsen’s 2009 novel ‘The Selected Works of T. S. Spivet’. But it highlights something that’s important to us at MTF Labs: connecting ideas that do not, on the surface, appear to be connected, like, say, choreography and cryptography, neuroscience and fashion, robots and opera, art and science. And so the art and science of map making is a special domain. Cartography is as much data science as it is imagining and exploring new and undiscovered worlds.

And Abrian Curington is a map maker, a scientific researcher, a science communicator, an illustrator and graphic novelist. Her work, like a family-friendly cartoon, is at once familiar and accessible while showing you things you might not have encountered or even thought of before, whether that’s under the sea or among the stars.

Dubber      Abrian Curington, thanks so much for joining us for the MTF Podcast. How are you doing?

Abrian       I’m doing pretty well.

Dubber      We should probably explain a little bit about what you do because we’re interested in the intersection of art and science, and you pretty much have one foot firmly on both. I’ve obviously mentioned the cartography and the comic art, but how do you describe what it is you do?

Abrian       After years of trying to collect all of my disparate interests and all of my hobbies under one umbrella, I’ve started calling myself a visual storyteller. So it doesn’t matter whether I’m making comics or illustrated prose or illustrating courses, and it doesn’t matter if I’m writing about dragons or Komodo dragons. It just encapsulates everything I like to do by saying that I’m a visual storyteller.

Dubber      And the art came first, presumably?

Abrian       Sort of. When I was little, I was drawing. I drew a lot. I made up my own stories, but I also was actively checking out books on geography and astronomy and all the -ologies. So I really loved everything at the same time, so to say the art came first… I suppose. Usually, you have crayons before you’re reading books, but I dove into it all at the same time.

Dubber      Now, when people communicate science through art, the presupposition tends to be that the science is really hard and complicated, and if you put an artist between a general audience and the science, then it’s a way of explaining the science. Is there any sense in which you’re also contributing to the science by doing what you do?

Abrian       Occasionally. Typically, I’m contributing to science by asking questions. And sometimes I feel that they’re dumb questions, but I ask them anyway because there are no dumb questions, right? And when the scientist has to answer that question, it often gets them thinking about their own work in a way that they hadn’t previously thought about it before, which may lead to… They haven’t gotten back to me to say that I was the breakthrough of the case, but it may lead them to some solutions that they hadn’t thought of before.

Dubber      Right. Well, you seem to be interested not just in illustrating scientific studies, but you bring the art and science together in the realm of cartography. Making maps. And not just really quite beautiful hand-drawn ones, but also computerised GIS systems. You should probably explain that last bit.

Abrian       Yes. GIS. I always have to write it down because I never remember off the top of my head. Geographic information systems. So just how the world can be looked at in different ways. Splitting up things by political boundaries or by vegetation. Just ways that our world intersects by what’s in what area.

And I think I started with mapping on the fantasy side of things, actually. More like creating journeys when I’m reading a book - mapping out where the characters are going and what this new, fantastical world looks like - and I wanted to be able to relate that to our real world as well, so I did become a GIS cartographer. So I do a little bit of both. I still definitely make up imaginary maps, but I also have star charts and all sorts of fun things.

Dubber      What does it actually entail, GIS? Is it essentially data entry to find spatial relationships to things?

Abrian       Exactly, yeah. So usually I’m starting… Well, with everything - stories, any sort of science - you’re starting with a question. “Why is this certain thing happening in this area?”.

One of my most favourite examples… I can’t remember if it was typhoid. I think it was. But a gentleman mapped out the number of cases per street, and they were able to look at that and look at the data and figure out where the main outbreak points where, and then they could deduce “Okay, these are all around water systems.”. So they were able to figure out what was causing this outbreak because they just plotted out all the data that they had about who was getting sick.

Dubber      Right. So I guess this is something that’s now being deployed in the interests of tracking COVID.

Abrian       Yes, definitely. And, actually, a lot of people say “Well, but you’re a cartographer. Hasn’t the world been mapped already?”. The answer is yes, but, number one, it hasn’t been mapped in full detail. We actually have a situation where most of our world’s oceans are not mapped. I haven’t checked today, but I think we’re up to in the twenty percent of the world’s oceans have been mapped.

Dubber      Wow.

Abrian       Which is historically… That’s great because just about a year and a half ago, I think it was something like five percent. So I think there’s a push to get all of the world’s oceans mapped by 2030. So not all the world is mapped, number one.

Number two, any time you see a map… So a great example is the COVID-19 outbreak, but also a political season when you’re doing voting and everything, and you see… In America, we have the red and blue states. Any time you see any sort of map, it’s been created by a cartographer. So maps are still heavily used, especially… Even your GPS. When you look up the directions to a restaurant on your smartphone, that map actually was created by somebody. So it’s still heavily used.

Dubber      Well, it seems like with something… Like you say, that GIS is about mapping data and the spatial relationships between those things. It seems like we can just keep mapping the same places over and over again but with different types of information.

Abrian       Exactly. This map of your hometown has your favourite restaurants. This map has the locations of nearby gyms. This map tells you the quickest routes to get to the local hospital. All of the same place, different information.

Dubber      And working backwards from that, you could have a layer of science on top of that which actually spots relationships between those things or ratios between those things.

Abrian       Exactly, yeah.

Dubber      Interesting. Okay, so you mentioned that the ocean is something that still hasn’t been properly mapped, which raises the fact that you started working recently with the Schmidt Ocean Institute. Let’s start with, what is that?

Abrian       Yeah, the Schmidt Ocean Institute. A private organisation that has the research vessel Falkor. And they have an Artist-at-Sea programme, so I applied and was awarded a slot in their Artist-at-Sea programme.

I went out on the ‘Seeking Space Rocks’ expedition for two weeks at sea, and we were looking for fallen meteorites on the seafloor. So my job was to create a map that reflected our journey and some of the things that we found and discovered along the way. And it ended up being more of an illustration and the story of our expedition, but it all came together very nicely.

Dubber      And what did you find?

Abrian       What did we find? I cannot tell you exactly what we found yet because it’s not released, but we definitely did find some meteorite dust, for sure. We were looking for meteorites that were over a centimetre on the muddy, muddy seafloor a year after the meteorite had fallen, so it was definitely a “Let’s see what we find.” kind of thing. We had no idea whether we’d find anything or not.

Dubber      Right. And are you, presumably, staying on the boat and drawing pictures of what comes back, or are you going down and actually looking at the seafloor?

Abrian       I was not able to go down the several hundred meters to the seafloor, but I was able to be in the science control room watching the screens that the remote-operated vehicle was broadcasting to. So I was in the control room drawing what we were seeing, and asking “Hey, what’s that fish?” or “What’s that sediment formation?” and able to record what we were seeing.

Dubber      Right. Well, one of the things I love about what you’re doing is that you’re not just drawing pictures of rocks from the seafloor or drawing maps that show where everything’s located, but you also seem to want to explain the world and how it works through words and images. I’m thinking about things like your ‘Star Math’ that’s on your website. Do you want to tell us a little bit about that and where it comes from?

Abrian       Yeah. So ‘Star Math’ is me learning more about navigation in the world around me. I have never been super great with direction. And not like “I can’t get to the grocery store.”, but someone says “Oh, you just head south on…”, well, you’ve already lost me. Unless I’m in a place where I already know where north is, I have no idea where south is. Just forget it. So it was me trying to tackle that idea and the idea that the math involved in calculating your position is too hard, when, in fact, we have calculators. We’re very privileged in the era that we’re in to have calculators we can pull out of our pockets. So mostly learning about the world and demystifying a lot of aspects of celestial navigation.

Dubber      But you’re talking about things like not even pulling out calculators, just pulling out a finger, and one finger is fifteen minutes of sunset. Do you want to tell us how that works?

Abrian       Yes. So it’s an old camping trick. You find the horizon - or, in my case, I have so many mountains that I estimate where the horizon is - and if I hold up one finger above the horizon and the sun’s sitting right above that, that means I have about fifteen minutes before the sun is going to set. So if I’m out in the woods somewhere, I would definitely need to be close to home base within fifteen minutes.

And so I tackle ways to use older technology, ways to use no technology, and still have a sense of where you are in the world.

Dubber      Interesting. So navigation is the point of cartography rather than finding out where you already are.

Abrian       Sometimes. I had a project over the summer where I went to my local nature reserve, and I tried to map it the way that someone in the 15th century would map it. And in the 15th century, we didn’t have all of the math worked out to pinpoint our locations, so the maps ended up… At least the world maps ended up a little whacky. The land maps were okay, though. So I plodded around with sticks and protractors and just figured my way around, and I ended up mapping that with no modern tools, and that was a lot of fun.

Dubber      Do you have a favourite projection?

Abrian       Oh, tough question. Not at the moment, only because you usually… You’d switch projections based on what you’re depicting. So it depends on what the subject is as to which projection I would use.

Dubber      And since you’re the cartographer in this conversation, do you want to tell us what we mean by projection?

Abrian       Yes. So the world is round. Not everyone believes that, but the world is a sphere, basically. It’s a wonky sphere. And when you try to flatten a sphere onto a flat surface, it doesn’t quite work out. It’s like peeling an orange and then trying to press the peel flat. It doesn’t want to flatten all the way. And so when we’re trying to flatten out our sphere into a flat 2D map, something’s going to get a little wonky. You can decide whether it stretches in one area or compresses in another, or maybe things look about right but the distances between them aren’t exactly right. So each of those different ways of showing distortion is a different projection. They’re called projections. So how we’re projecting this 3D shape onto this 2D surface.

Dubber      And, of course, showing some places as being larger or smaller than they are or making Europe the centre and so on, there’s always going to be a political dimension to how maps are presented and interpreted.

Abrian       There can be, especially with world maps. Like you were saying, whether Europe’s in the centre or not. A lot of us are choosing to split it so that Europe is not in the centre. That way, things fall with ocean on either side, more or less, because splitting in the middle of land just feels a little weird now. But definitely, growing up, it was Europe right in the centre.

 That doesn’t necessarily change the projection. Projection is more determined by what the map is used for. So at sea, they’re often using Mercator projections, which no one likes Mercator anymore because… For various reasons. But for sea navigation, it’s the easiest way to chart things. Whereas, if I’m just showing North America, I would use a different projection because of the shape of the landmass and a few other things.

Dubber      Right. This is interesting to me because I come from a place that tends to fall off people’s maps quite often. So New Zealand is one of those things that sometimes gets forgotten and doesn’t get drawn on. There’s nothing past Australia. So it’s interesting the way that political power structures are handled in terms of how mapping takes place. But how did you come to mapping? How did this become something that is a thing that… How does anybody come to this as an occupation?

Abrian       I think it really does go back to me being little, reading fantasy novels and seeing the maps in the front of the book. I didn’t care if they were real or not. They just looked so cool. And my love of journeys and feeling your way around the world. I think I just wanted to create a journey for someone else, whether it’s our real world or not. And aesthetically, they are so pleasing. I think that was my main thing growing up. “This just looks cool, and I want to make things that look this cool.”, and all of the deeper meaning came in afterwards.

Dubber      Is there a job that you can apply for straight out of school with that? Are there particular courses that you need to take?

Abrian       Yeah, there are cartography certificate programmes. They go to different levels. And, surprisingly, after you get past the map making, you usually shift into programming. So programming things like smartphone applications and that sort of thing, or data crunching programs.

So straight out of school, you typically would become a surveyor and do that for a while and then work your way up to cartographer. Being a hired cartographer in a company is like being a librarian. You have to wait around until that spot opens because there’s very few of them. But I am a freelance cartographer, so I just… Whenever someone hires me, I do the work. But to actually be in a corporation and work up the chain, you usually start as a surveyor.

Dubber      Right. But you say you do this independently. You’ve set up something called Blue Cat Co. Do you want to tell me what that is?

Abrian       Yeah. Blue Cat Co. was my umbrella for everything. And, actually, as I was collecting everything together, I was like “I want to tell stories, but I also want to make maps and illustrate novels and also make graphic novels.”, so I just made Blue Cat Co. to encapsulate everything I was doing. I’m making journeys. It’s a bunch of different things, but they all get gathered here. And it’s also easier to spell than my name, so that was also a factor when picking the domain name.

Dubber      This makes you an independent publisher of your own work. Is that the case with the graphic novels? Is it the case with the comic books that you do? Or is this something that you get commissioned to independently do?

Abrian       I do take commissions under Blue Cat Co. but, yes, I did independently publish all of my past graphic novels. That came about… I made my first graphic novel, and I was going to pitch it to agents and follow traditional publishing, but I wanted to know how it all worked. How the system works. “What do publishers go through? Do you need an editor?”. All of these questions. So I thought “Well, I’ll just do the pre-sales myself and publish this book.”, and I did, and it was fine. And then on the next book, I just got impatient and published that one too. So it’s not that I’m against traditional publishing or anything, but I just wanted to see how the sausage was made, to see if I could go through all the steps myself and really learn about the business.

Dubber      Wow. Okay, so the world of comic books is not something we regularly dive into on this show, but just last week we had Joseph Illidge on the programme, and he’s worked at the complete other end of the scale, overseeing titles like Batman and working with major publishers with, presumably, armies of people. Is that a world you think you’d be comfortable in, or is the nature of what you do inherently independent and maybe solitary?

Abrian       I do like the level of independence in that I get to make my own decisions, but I have never been a person that has had to be hardcore in the… I don’t have that passion to just stay out of the mainstream. I’m actually seeking publishing for my next book because I’m tired, and I can’t manage all of the facets of marketing and all of the subsets that you said take an army. They really are best with an army. So now I’m getting traditional publishing so that I can focus on other things like ‘Star Math’ and fun things, whereas wearing all of the hats takes all of your energy to wear all of the hats.

Dubber      Sure. And it’s not like your work would be particularly challenging for a mainstream outlet or audience, either. It’s really approachable, and it’s engaging and accessible, even welcoming. It seems to be for everyone. Is that what you’re thinking when you’re making it?

Abrian       Yeah. In the marketing world, you do have to create to an audience, and it’s best to present a message to a specific audience, but I also like it to be accessible by everyone. I was always a little frustrated when there would be something - a movie or a tv series - that was perfectly fine for all ages, it didn’t really have a lot of violence or anything like that, but maybe the language that they were using was just unnecessarily crude. It’s like “You could have taken that out, and you’d have so many more viewers.”, if it didn’t really serve the story or the character. And so that’s always in the back of my mind when I’m creating. I have an audience in mind, but also other people could look at this, and I want to invite as many people in as possible so that their curiosity and imagination has sparked and they want to learn more about this thing.

Dubber      So what sparks your curiosity and imagination? For someone who’s been to sea looking for space rocks and mapped the stars, where do you want to go next?

Abrian       Oh, where do I want to go next? So, actually, I know exactly where I want to go next. As I was studying navigation and putting together ‘Star Math’, I was like “It would be amazing if I got to go to Antarctica.”. And there was the Antarctic Artists and Writers Program that I could have applied for, except the year that I decided to apply was the year that the coronavirus struck up, and they suspended their programme. I don’t know if it’s temporary or forever, and I don’t think they know either. So that would be my next adventure.

But it’s hard for me to explain what sparks my curiosity because it’s always very strange, random thoughts. But they all sound kind of like “Oh, I wonder if…”, or I’m just looking at something like “I wonder, how do bats fill in the blank?”, and it just leads me off onto a path. And I can’t really say what makes something more interesting or not, but I just am a curious cat.

Dubber      So you’ve written for children, and particularly I’m thinking about the kids’ comic about COVID. What inspired that, and what did you want it to achieve?

Abrian       That was actually a hired project. So that was through the platform www.lifeology.io, and they make courses for different audiences. So someone wrote a course about coronavirus. I think they had one for adults, and then they wanted one for more middle grade, and they wanted it to have a comic-y vibe.

So it was actually a challenge because their format is more like text with an illustration, but they wanted that illustration to be like a comic, but there was also text. So I had to try to blend the side narrative of what was going on in the more comic-y illustrations with the information about the coronavirus but keep it kid-friendly and more appealing. So we turned the coronavirus itself into what I call Coronabot. Unofficial name. But he’s a little robot, and it’s inside the body hijacking cells and just all sorts of fun things that are happening inside the body while you’re coughing and whatever.

Dubber      And was the idea to demystify what the disease is and how it works?

Abrian       Definitely. To show how it works, show that it’s… I don’t know if I want to say that it was trying to not vilify it, but just… It’s a big, scary, nebulous thing, so if you know more about it, it’s not quite so scary, but also know that it’s something you should be concerned about and something that you should do what you need to do to try to avoid the spread of. So in the middle there.

Dubber      Yeah. That there are actually steps that you can and should take, rather than just “You should be afraid.”.

Abrian       Right, exactly. Just “Don’t go hide in the closet, but also do things safely.”.

Dubber      Absolutely. Well, you found your voice, visually speaking, and you’ve written something that will help other people find theirs. Do you want to tell me about ‘Style Quest’? Because that seems like a really brave thing to do, to say “Here is how you, like me, can find your voice.”.

Abrian       Yeah. ‘Style Quest’ was actually the first book that I ever ‘published’. It was before I was publishing, but I printed it out with my own money and just foolishly decided to get it in flat sheets and staple it together myself, which… Bad idea. It’s way too thick for that, but anyway…

That book came about because I felt stuck. A lot of people talk about creative style when it comes to drawing and illustration, and style is a whole big conversation on its own, but it comes down to basically how you depict the world through your drawing. Some of it is just you and how you create, and some of it can be trained, in a sense. You can emulate something else. And so I got to a point where I drew fine, but I wanted to grow, so I made a style quest. So I did it myself. I examined what I liked and how that could influence what I do now, and then I did make it into a kind of autobiographical quest for style in this comic, with some tips on what you can do as well in the back.

Dubber      Do you want to give us any insight how we can go about… Is it transferrable? Is it just for people who draw, or is this a transferrable skill?

Abrian       Definitely transferrable. The first thing is looking at what you like, and sometimes that’s a harder question than you think. And also what you like is not necessarily what you want to do. I like a lot of art that I don’t want to emulate. I just like looking at it. So I also went back to what I used to like, once upon a time, before society or my own pretentiousness, maybe, got in the way, and then I started drawing in those styles to get a feel for it and took bits and pieces away that I would like to emulate.

But after all of that is the very important stuff that most people don’t talk about. I don’t even know if I… Yeah, I think I did include it in the book. But just draw a lot. After you figure out what you want to do, you have to do it a bajillion times before it actually gets into you. And that is transferrable to anything. You just study other things, and then practice it on your own and take what you want from it.

Dubber      Right. Spend time being bad at something before you’re good at it.

Abrian       Yeah.

Dubber      You went from there and you published some graphic novels with some really interesting ideas. ‘Bellmage’ really strikes me as a really interesting concept about somebody who has a bell that doesn’t make sound. That has to refer to something. That has to be a metaphor for something.

Abrian       It wasn’t so much a metaphor. At the time, it wasn’t. It probably is if I cared to think about it right now. But it was more about, probably, the college experience of you are trained sort of to do a thing, and then you’re thrust out into the world, and you really have no idea what you’re doing. And it’s, actually, now that I think about it, a recurring theme in my work, about jobs. But she was thrust out of the university with this bell that makes no sound, and she was told to make it make sound. They didn’t tell her how to. She just had to figure it out on her own. So, yeah, I definitely see that reflected in my own life and the life of others quite frequently.

Dubber      How much of the science finds its way into the comic book storytelling?

Abrian       I love research, so when I get to a point where I’m not sure how something works, my own curious brain says “How does that work?”, and so then I’ll go look it up. And I usually have footnotes at the bottom of the page or endnotes in the back where I will talk about the science behind whatever it is I looked up.

For ‘Woolmancy’, it’s still actually being debated. The main character is very analytical, and this Minotaur is about to crash into her, so she’s trying to figure out “Okay, if I move, will his horns get stuck in the wall?”, or “If he hits me, exactly how much force is that? Will I definitely die? I definitely will.”. And I made up the calculations for the book, but then I tried to do the calculations in the back of the book, which we’re still having trouble with the… It’s “The horns will get stuck in the wall.”. For some reason, that’s a more complicated physics question than I thought it would be. Any time I can infuse some of my research into the book, I will take the opportunity.

Dubber      We hear a lot that artists and scientists, the reason that they’re kept separate is that they speak different languages. They think in different ways. But what can scientists learn from artists, and what can artists learn from scientists, do you think?

Abrian       Depends on the kind of artist or scientist that you are. But the scientists that fit the stereotype of a scientist, let’s say, definitely that you can ask questions. You can ask broader questions. You can ask questions that don’t make sense. A lot of the scientists that I work with that are very much the stereotypical scientists…

Actually - a good interaction - I was presenting some of my maps at a conference, and a scientist said “So what are these for? Who would use these?”. Not to be mean. A genuine question. But I said “Well, they’re for getting people interested in what we’re doing.”, because they weren’t… For example, I think they were looking at my ‘A Star Chart’, and there was no obvious data on it. It was just the constellations and their names, so “Why would anybody use this?”. Because it looks great, and it makes them curious about stars. That’s why. So just opening up their minds to just asking any ridiculous question and seeing where it leads you.

And what the stereotypical artist could learn from a scientist is that you can use methodologies and systems in your work to make it easier. I’m very logical, analytical brained, so everything I do has a system. And when I don’t have a system, it’s a mess, and it takes a lot longer, and it’s a lot more stressful. So you can blend. And we don’t speak separate languages. The artistic process is literally the scientific method. We just have built a wall.

Dubber      Okay, you’re going to have to explain that a little bit more, that the artistic process is basically the scientific method. What do you mean by that?

Abrian       Yeah, absolutely. You start with a question. You do research. That could be in looking up reference images or the place that you’re wanting to depict. You try out a lot of things, see what works, and eventually, you come to a conclusion at the end. And it’s the same as… That’s the scientific process.

And art and science didn’t use to be separate, and oftentimes still isn’t. We had scientists sketching out their observations and that sort of thing. I don’t know what made us build the wall between the two, actually, because they used to be the same thing, almost.

Dubber      Do you think there’s a movement to pull down that wall, and are you part of it?

Abrian       Yes and yes. Yes, there is. Science communication is really where you’re seeing it a lot, and they’re just saying “We don’t have to be separate. The two parts equal something grander than them separately, and we can benefit from working with each other.”. And I don’t know what happened to separate it, but there definitely is a movement to put them back together again. Humpty Dumpty.

Dubber      Nice. Abrian, thanks so much for your time. It’s been really, really enjoyable. Thank you.

Abrian       Well, thank you.

Dubber      That’s cartographer and visual storyteller, Abrian Curington, and that’s the MTF Podcast. You can find Abrian’s work, including her ‘Star Math’, her books, and her maps, at www.bluecatco.com, and you’ll find me @dubber on Twitter. And, of course, MTF Labs is @mtflabs on all the social media platforms you’d probably expect. If you haven’t done so yet, make sure you subscribe to this podcast so that it turns up automatically for you next time around, wherever you listen to podcasts. You can, of course, also share, like, rate, and review. We would love to hear your thoughts. Stay safe, have a great week, and we’ll talk soon. Cheers.

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