Arts & Culture

How a Lowcountry mapmaker is blending history, technology and art

In Green Pond, making 'old maps of the 21st century'

Green Pond native Travis Folk could not believe no one was already doing it — making old maps using 21st century technology. But, save for a man in England making hand-drawn globes, that was indeed the case, he told The Island Packet and The Beauf
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Green Pond native Travis Folk could not believe no one was already doing it — making old maps using 21st century technology. But, save for a man in England making hand-drawn globes, that was indeed the case, he told The Island Packet and The Beauf

Travis Folk rests the map on his desk.

He sits in his chair, his eyes matching his blue gingham shirt and the rubber band stretching across the fingers of his left hand. Blue waves on the map, hand-drawn and colored, surround the boot-shaped island.

“I ran across a map of all the Sea Island cotton plantations on Hilton Head,” Folk says. “I can remember going to Hilton Head in the ’80s, when there wasn’t anything until you got to the island. Of course my wife grew up in Sea Pines, so she remembers a Hilton Head of a different era.

“And I started thinking how interesting it would be, in one map, to both describe the 21st century layout —”

As he talks, he points to a brown-colored area labeled “SEA PINES” in bold, block letters on the toe of the boot, then to Port Royal Plantation on the heel, then Palmetto Hall.

“ — so you can understand the Hilton Head of today, but then, simultaneous to that, describe the Hilton Head of a totally different era.”

He points to the dashed lines and finer, cursive script that denote areas such as Braddock Point, Calibogue and Point Comfort, all within Sea Pines.

“These are the boundaries and names of the Sea Island cotton plantations in 1861.”

These are the boundaries and names of the sea island cotton plantations in 1861.

Travis Folk

The map, protected by glass and resting in a cypress frame, is the third Folk’s company, New World Cartography, designed after opening in 2014. Third-generation woodworker Mark Seigler of Walterboro frames the maps after they’ve been hand-drawn and colored by Charleston-based artist Tony Waters, after they’ve been researched and computer-designed by Folk.

Folk, a wildlife biologist with family business Folk Land Management in Green Pond, has been using Geographic Information System (GIS) software to make maps since his college days. After graduating from the University of Georgia, he earned a master’s degree and doctorate from Auburn University, where he studied wood ducks. His research often found him in a Cessna, where he looked down at the earth from 500 feet. The landscape and its features — the way they affected the birds’ behavior — fascinated him.

Now, in his office, he unrolls more maps, in various stages of production, and places them on his desk. He weighs down the paper with his pocket knife and a letter opener, a miniature Spanish sword.

There’s a pre-production template that Waters has traced — from one of Folk’s spatially accurate GIS designs — and hand-drawn — the lettering and details are free-handed — on a piece of Mylar, which will eventually be scanned into a high-resolution image that can be printed on paper and, finally, hand-colored by Waters.

There’s a map of Savannah, from River Street in the north to Gaston Street in the south, that intentionally excludes Forsyth Park, so that it retains the shape of the wards — and squares — it emphasizes.

And there’s a finished, unframed print of Palmetto Bluff, where his mother-in-law lives — hers was the seventh house in the development, he says, and he can point to its location.

“The enormity of the property, the dendritic look of the map,” he says of his favorite feature of Palmetto Bluff — the tree-like, branching effect that the water and marshes combine to create.

That, to me, just looks Lowcountry.

Travis Folk

“That, to me, just looks Lowcountry,” he says of the map, which was inspired by old coastal survey maps. “Meandering marsh, tidal creek.”

Earlier in the day, Folk chauffeurs a guest from Green Pond to Walterboro, to Seigler’s shop. Cobwebs hang in the rafters and decades-old pieces of cypress hide in woodpiles and under weathered peach baskets.

Amidst the debris is an old wood planer his father used — so much so that its middle is bowed, unable to pick up a board and pull it through. Three-generations’ worth of sawdust coats the floor, so much so that it feels like walking on spongecake.

“There’s nothing better than getting in an old, old pile of wood and digging something out of it,” Seigler says. “That’s a treasure.”

“It’s like Christmas,” Folk says.

The men talk about wood choices for frames. Yellow pine is no good, Seigler says. The color’s not right, and it might split. They like cypress, heart pine, mahogany — tight grains, no knots.

And the miter joints have to be perfect, 45-degrees. One degree off and customers will notice. A perfect joint won’t cause a map’s owner to consider the craftsmanship that went into it.

Seigler picks up a finished frame and flips it over, revealing the individually numbered plate each framed map bears. He points to a screw that secures the plate’s left side, and which might sit a tad higher than its mate.

He used to make a pilot hole, then drill a bigger hole, then install the screw, he said. But he found drilling the bigger hole caused the screw to ride up. Now, he makes a pilot hole and just puts the screw straight in, so it’s even.

It’s pride. If it’s not right, it’s wrong.

Mark Seigler

“It’s pride,” he says. “If it’s not right, it’s wrong.”

Earlier, as Folk sits in his office, he shows off a map of Charleston.

He points to a black dot in West Ashley. That’s not an imperfection, he said. It’s a place marker — the location of Waters’ studio.

“If you make the map, you get to put what you want on the map,” he says.

He smiles.

Maps are rolled up and sit in bins on either side of the couch. Others rest on the corner of his desk. Old maps, including some framed plat maps of Colleton County, hang on the wall.

Folk will tell you he was born in Beaufort. He can point to an old plantation map and show you where he was raised, in Green Pond. And he can show you where you’re currently sitting, in his office — an abandoned church that sits just off the road and hides behind the trees.

That map is hand-drawn.

It has a human touch, something he hopes his company’s maps have.

A sense of place.

Wade Livingston: 843-706-8153, @WadeGLivingston