Meet the Maker: Molly Roy

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Molly Roy makes maps for a living, but her work isn’t meant to help you travel from point A to point B. “When I tell people that I’m a cartographer, they assume that I make a standard, basic roadmap,” says Roy, 26. Wrong. She makes artistic maps, poster maps, atlases and maps that tell stories. Roy is currently the principal cartographer for an alternative atlas of New York City and, in a separate project, is working on a creative map of New Deal sites in New York. She also served as the co-editor of “Food: An Atlas,” a provocative collaborative mapping project about food and place. Roy’s approach to cartography is fundamentally about the ways in which humans make meaning out of the places they inhabit.

Starting point

Roy, who was raised in South Sacramento and studied geography at UC Berkeley, inherited a fascination with maps from her father, who grew up in a rural village in Bangladesh. “He somehow got ahold of a world atlas when he was really young. He would point to places like Rio de Janeiro or London or New York and say one day he would go there,” says Roy. “By chance and because he became a refugee in the 1971 Bangladesh war, he ended up in the United States. Now he has the means and the ability to travel all over the world. He always told me that story, and he taught me and my sister the importance of traveling and seeing other places.”

The art in cartography

Roy describes cartography as “more of an art form than a science.” For her, the focus is on visualizing data through color, labels, language, symbols and imagery. “What I think is really important is how to make the map aesthetically pleasing and beautiful and balanced and clear,” says Roy. “Clarity and simplicity are really important when trying to get across any sort of data.” Information, from Roy’s perspective, can indeed be beautiful. “A map can stand on its own as a work of art.” 

Maps of change

Roy is drawn to cartography in part because of its capacity to create social change. She sits on the board of Guerrilla Cartography, a nonprofit organization that creates and publishes maps for the purpose of shedding light on social issues. “Cartography evolved from a practice among a powerful few elites who had the money and the capacity to make maps of the land and say what was in a place and what wasn’t. But some people got left out of the conversation,” explains Roy. “Today there are so many inspiring community-led mapping projects so that people can say, ‘I’m here, I can put myself on the map, I exist in this place.’”

Hometown atlas

Roy is currently seeking funding for a mapping project close to home and to her heart: an atlas of Sacramento. And there’s seemingly no limit to the subjects she hopes to explore: The way that water and rivers have been used and misused; how the flood and levee systems work; the history of the Black Panthers in Oak Park; Native American histories; immigrant histories; and the development of K and R streets all make the list.

Where to find

To view a portfolio of Roy’s work, visit mroycartography.com

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