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CarTography: Artist Matt Cusick Maps Out the Living History of America’s Highways

Dallas-based New Yorker uses paper maps for his collages

Rummage through your car’s glove box, ignoring the piles of old receipts, the owner’s manual, and maybe a long-forgotten Nirvana CD, and you’ll notice there’s something missing. Something that, seemingly overnight, vanished into history. With the swift development of in-car navigation and then Google in the palm of your hand, physical maps have faded into obsolescence. Artist Matthew Cusick, 47, is instead finding new avenues for exploration in their faded pages.

Born in New York City and now living in Dallas, Texas, Cusick’s fascination with history manifests itself in dizzying collages of old cars and somehow-beautiful vistas of highway networks. Each one made up of numerous map scraps, sometimes of the same location from various points in time, Cusick’s creations are like looking back at the ebbs and flows of the American road all in one gulp.

These road maps of the past first came about when Cusick saw a photo of the I-35/I-40 interchange in Dallas in the 1940s and then visited the location to find it completely transformed. That was the inspiration for “Course of Empire (Mixmaster 1).”

“There’s an organic life to the way our landscape and infrastructure have evolved and shifted,” Cusick says. “Once you can’t trust a map, it’s lost its function. It becomes useful instead as a relic, as a memory.”

The vibrant, disparate colors of the various two-dimensional maps, occasionally enhanced with acrylic paint or walnut ink, cohere into a 3D world of decades past. A child of the 1970s and its budding recreational travel culture, Cusick uses clashing color as a loving reminder of the maps he used to find at gas stations all over the country.

So where does a person get the thousands of maps needed to make such intricate collages? The first ones he used came from National Geographic issues discovered in his grandmother’s attic when this project began in 2002. Now that many libraries have gone completely digital, donations from places such as the University of Texas have turned into treasure troves of material for Cusick, and there are now even declassified military maps to go along with the growing pile of maps sent by friends and fans.

As for cars he depicts, it could be a Cadillac, a Datsun 280Z, an ’84 Oldsmobile, or a Trans Am. If it’s old, and the odometer reads high, it has a story. “A car is just an empty shell until it’s got some miles on it,” Cusick says. “Where it’s been is what gives a car its identity and history.”

There’s something captivating about Cusick’s meticulous assembly, a fascination in seeing the permanent made plastic. It’s all the nostalgic revelry of Americana without any of the camp.

Entranced by the speed, danger, and thrill associated with cars he saw in Hollywood movies, one of his other works is a video collage of more than 300 car chases from classics such as “Vanishing Point” and “Shaft.” The project has gone through more than five editions and is still in progress, a reflection of Cusick’s view of the past and present as concepts in constant motion.

In the age of slick, digitized Google maps, Cusick’s art is a reminder of a more tactile history. “Getting lost opens up unforeseen possibilities,” he says. “On my last road trip with my daughter, we got lost after ignoring the phone, and the best part of the trip was just driving until we hit the next town. The song we ended up writing about it, which sounds like a cross between Joan Jett and Morphine, is called ‘Throw Your Phone Out the Window.’”

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