Jan Rothuizen

Creating “Written Maps”, by Jan Rothuizen

I don’t know ahead of time how I am going to tackle a drawing. I could opt for a bird’s-eye view, a panorama, a street view, or an overview. The choice emerges as I decide what kind of story I want to tell, based on fieldwork and the information I have gathered. By zooming in I can tell the reader more about a certain location from a single perspective. If, on the other hand, I want to show the broader picture, then I choose for a map form so the reader can see many things happening at once.

The places I selected for drawings have specific characteristics of their own, but are also part of a larger whole, a collective story. For example: the boyhood bedroom of a soldier who had been killed in Afghanistan. It is on the one hand about the private, individual story of a young man who died but also about the larger context of a faraway and thus abstract war. My inquisitiveness in choosing a location to ‘map out’ is primarily a combination of the anticipation of finding something, but not knowing for sure what that will be.

Maria Cecilia‘s room in Amsterdam | Click image to enlarge.

First I write out my notes and pencil them into the drawing. Once everything is in place, after lots of pencil sketches, I trace the drawing in ink with a dip pen. During this last phase, things often get added to the drawing that I had not seen or thought of earlier.

My senses are my most valuable instruments. Alongside the senses that are focused outward, like smell and sight, I also observe the inward-focusing sensations. These sensations make us aware of movement and the position we assume in a certain space. Sensations like fear of heights or claustrophobia make me aware of instability of the physical self.

I don’t draw much on location. I write down what I see, make mental notes, and take snapshots with my phone or camera that I can refer to when making the drawings. I also print out small-format maps so that I can take notes on what happened where. So when I work out a drawing I know that, for instance, at 15:18 a man crossed the street, talking on his phone. In this way I give the drawing the credibility of a report.

In my drawings I consciously play with the hierarchy of information; I shift between personal, general, trivial or matter-of-fact perspectives. It reflects the diversity of information I take in myself when I visit a location.

Bedford Avenue, Brooklyn | Click image to enlarge.

Another element of my observation is the social aspect. Walking through Harlem in New York, I feel white, whereas in midtown Manhattan I am hardly aware of my skin color. I prefer to go out on my own because then you are more open to experiencing your surroundings; in a group, your surroundings have less influence on who you are.

In addition to being an observer, I also try to be actively involved, an accessory. I do this by engaging people in conversation and showing them examples of my drawings. Alongside these chats and observations, I also use whatever I can find online and in books. I comb through forums to see what people say about a certain topic. This way I learned while working on my drawing about Amsterdam’s red light district that there is a website called Hookers.nl where clients can post a review about the prostitutes they had visited.

Amsterdam – New York | Click image to enlarge

This text is excerpted from an interview for Arch+


Jan Rothuizen (1968) is a visual artist. His drawings are translated into English, Spanish and Chinese. His work is shown at film festivals, museums and galleries. He made the inter-active award-winning documentary Refugee Republic about a refugee camp in Iraq and the VR animated film ‘ Drawing Room. He is currently working on a new book and interactive film about the country Colombia.

I met Jan while on sabbatical in 2017. Read more about here.

Jan’s Website: https://janrothuizen.nl/

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