Alum combines art and cartography across all 59 national parks

M.C. Tilton
August 25, 2016

When Karla Sanders came to Ohio University from Cincinnati to study art, she never imagined that she would fall in love with geography. But her undergraduate general education requirement in geography opened the door to a new world,  and she quickly found herself uncovering the treasures of an interdisciplinary career in art and environment.  Ultimately, she earned a Master’s of Science in Environmental Studies (MSES) degree from the Voinovich School of Leadership and Public Affairs, along with master’s degrees in geography and cartography.

It all started when Sanders found a perfect local opportunity to fill a cartography gap. Athens County residents wanted to build a new trail through the Raccoon Creek Watershed, but were held back by the area’s lack of a proper map. Sanders worked with the president of the watershed and her nature fanatic MSES thesis advisor, Bernhard Debatin, to produce a rich double-sided map with more than 100 miles of trails. Wildlife descriptions and an educational guide to the habitat, history and culture of the watershed are included on the map’s panels. Sanders’ work is now the official public Raccoon Creek map.

“I really wanted to find a way to go back to my art roots with my thesis, and a faculty member at the School of Visual Communications inspired me to pair my geography work with something ‘practical’ but art-related,” Sanders said. “My thesis work helped me realize that I could combine art and my environmental interests more than I would have expected.”

After graduation, Sanders worked full time in the corporate realm as a graphic designer.  Still, Sanders’ heart tugged her back to her own art and environmental disciplines.  While she knew that art was her passion, she struggled to find a way to make a difference through her craft.

Sanders needed a fresh perspective and more direction with her art pursuits, so she moved to Italy to study graphic design. While there, she met fellow designer Andres Quintero, who proposed to her on top of the Florence Duomo, married her in the Appalachian foothills, and moved to Cleveland with her. Quintero shares Sanders’ love of the outdoors, and one day, while visiting Cuyahoga National Park, they were hit with a tremendous idea – to combine their interests in art, conservation and travelling, they would devote their lives to making illustrated maps of every national park in the United States.   And so their artful map studio, Hike and Draw, was born.

After two years of planning and mapping the 59-park route according to the seasons, and a little inspiration from Chris Guillebeau’s book The $100 Startup, Sanders and Quintero began their journey at Mammoth Cave National Park in April of 2016. They document the entire quest closely on their blog, and plan to interview other artists who illustrate National Parks along the way to connect people to place.

“When I combine art and the environment, I’m storytelling about place,” Sanders said. “It’s the art of non-conformity that The $100 Startup talks about – it’s approaching life in a non-conventional way and finding an endless stream of creativity from the beautiful lands we visit.”

The lifestyle changes Sanders and Quintero have made are enormous.  As nomads, they have no physical home base to return to, and they’ve made their minimalist camping spots into a completely trash-free zero waste experience.

“It’s not a very convenient way to travel with cloth bags and everything, but the effort it takes to have a true zero waste lifestyle is absolutely worth it,” Sanders said. “We even drive a Subaru Outback because Subaru works with the National Park Service to create zero waste campaigns in all the parks.”

Sanders credits the Voinovich School with opening her to the interdisciplinary education that enabled her to visualize a life in art, geography, cartography and environmentalism all at once.

“I needed the practical hands-on experience I received at the Voinovich School to understand what I really wanted to do with my life,” Sanders said. “I had to work in the field and actually go through the process of being a cartographer before I could know what my profession would look like every day. I could have landed in the EPA or something similar with just my geography degree, but my Environmental Studies practicum forced me to be independent – I had to be the one asking the questions and making the choices, and it showed me that I can truly work for myself and be an entrepreneur.”

Sanders hopes that the art she and Quintero creates will help the wellbeing of their patrons, especially in their audience’s own quests to connect with themselves and others through the outdoors.

“When you start a journey, you don’t always know what the outcome will be, both for you and the people you affect,” Sanders said. “You just have to put yourself out there.”

To learn more about Sanders and Quintero, and to follow their journey and purchase their maps and posters, visit the online Hike and Draw store and the National Park Quest blog.