Woman at Work: Michelle Snyder, Mapmaker
Tell us about your work.
I run Quail Lane Press, a letterpress art studio in Milwaukie, Oregon. Through illustration I create maps, landscape art, and other nature-inspired imagery. These images are then printed on our antique letterpress machines.
You took some back roads to mapmaking. Can you chart your career path for us?
Yes, my path to Quail Lane meandered around a bit. I’ve had an interest in nature all of my life. As a kid, I wanted to be a marine biologist and ended up studying environmental science in college. I wanted to save the earth, you know? But I also had this competing interest in art. I found myself sneaking over to the school of art and taking printmaking classes, and drawing in my notebooks instead of paying attention in my science classes.
After college, I was working for a lab at UC Irvine doing grassland surveys and the professor I worked for noticed my doodles and drawings in my field notebooks. She asked me to do some large illustrations of native grass species for her to frame for her lab. And she paid me for it. Getting paid for my hobby was exhilarating.
I’d had this idea in my mind that I wanted to move to a mountain town for some time. I'd grown up in LA and lived in New York City, and was itching to try something different. While trying to figure out where to go next, I went backpacking in Desolation Wilderness and fell totally in love with the area...so I moved there. Next thing I knew 5 years had passed and I was living on Quail Lane on the west shore of Lake Tahoe, engaged to be married, with a fledgling printmaking business.
At some point I thought it would be fun to make a map of Lake Tahoe. There are plenty of decorative maps of Tahoe out there but I felt like I hadn’t found the one for me. Something that focused on just the natural features of the region—peaks, watersheds, and trails. I also found myself mesmerized by ancient maps that show the landscape pre-development... That was my route to mapmaking.
Can you walk us through the process of making a Quail Lane map?
I pick the place I want to draw. Then I start with as many source maps as possible to work from. Large paper maps are ideal but I also really enjoy looking at historical maps that are available for download through certain institutions like university and art collections. I’m often drawn to charting wilderness areas. To do this I look at a few different maps and piece them together (usually just by cross-referencing over and over), to figure out my own illustration. Then I use a pencil and draw all the landscape features of the map out onto a very large sheet of paper (and all the text), then ink over the lines with pen. I turn my map drawing into a relief plate (or 2, if the map is 2-color), then feed it manually through our letterpress.
Maps feel like factual representation, but there are artistic choices that go into making your maps, right? You don’t put in every road, every landmark…
I don’t put in any roads, actually. The maps I make focus on the land and water, and how to travel through it by human power. No roads, only walking/hiking trails.
Naming things must get tricky. Indigenous versus colonial names, for one. How does your point of view factor into these representations?
I think about this a lot. So much of western mapping in recent history has such a strong emphasis on land ownership and erasing native place names. I have a dream of creating a decolonial chart of the Pacific Northwest. But I couldn't do this without consultation from many diverse First Nations people. It’s a project I truly hope to do.
How many maps have you made?
Last check around 80.
Do you use Google maps when you drive or vintage road maps?
Ha! The analog option. The Forest Service has ranger district maps that are indispensable for adventuring out on those endless logging roads here in Oregon...where there is no cell reception.
Where would you most like to get lost?
Lately it’s just alone in my shop at my drawing table. As a small business owner I wear a lot of hats. It’s hard to find the time to create artwork. This has been especially the case during the pandemic.
Do you go to all the places you draw?
I try to! The maps that I make after visiting a place (and falling in love with it) are always the best ones.
Tell us about your printing presses.
Quail Lane has 2 presses: a Vandercook proof press, which we use for larger format pieces like our maps, and our 100 year old platen press for our card line. Louis, the Vandercook proof press, is a cantankerous old bird. Learning to use Louis was so much trial and error. Lots of error.
You are an avid climber and hiker. Are you thinking about maps when you’re out in nature?
Absolutely. Especially when you get up high, in mountaineering, and can actually see the full landscape. It’s sublime.
Do you have a good sense of direction?
I had a terrible sense of direction until I entered the world of cartography. Now I always try to know my navigational north.
You learn a lot of names when you’re making maps. Rivers, mountains, bays…Any funny ones that have stuck with you?
There are a lot of funny pessimistic place names here in the west (e.g., Hell’s Canyon, Dead Man’s Gulch, Cape Disappointment). I’ve come across so many little lakes in wilderness areas that are not named... so occasionally I take it upon myself to name them. I just try to come up with the most enchanting thing that I can think of. They are my Easter eggs.
Give us one!
You’re also a mom to 2 small humans. How do mapmaking and motherhood mix?
Like so many other parents, this year I suddenly became a homeschool teacher. As challenging as that was—juggling the biz and the kids—I found myself teaching my son (who is 8) things about my work that I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. We were just together all the time so it was like, why not? Why not teach him how to pack up a print to mail and how to use Photoshop? Or ask him to take photos of me for this interview?
Find Michelle + Quail Lane Press here. Michelle'’s pronouns are she + her.