When Sarah Bell began working as a ranger in the North Cascades National Park, she found that she loved the position– except for one small problem. Park ranger jobs are seasonal, but Bell knew she’d like to do it year-round.
Many continual park employees use something called Geographic Information Systems Mapping (GIS), which is both a science and a software. Noticing this, Bell enrolled in the University of Wisconsin-Madison to obtain a postgraduate certification in GIS.
“I got really intrigued with the cartography side of mapmaking, not just the analysis side,” Bell says. “And so I was hooked. Ever since then, I’ve not looked back.”
Bell now holds an M.S. in geography and has worked for independent mapmaking companies as well as Western Washington University’s Resilience Institute. Her current position is as a cartographer and data visualization designer for Esri, an international geospatial company.
Science Meets Creativity
Bell notes that cartography falls under the broader geospatial field. This term can be applied to almost any job that aims to understand the space in which we live, including NASA employees who work to understand Earth from above. While the field is undoubtedly technical, Bell also points out that cartography overlaps with art.
“The folks who really claim this word ‘cartographer’ as an identity, we tend to be very creative, but also really enjoy the science side of it,” Bell says. “So you don’t have to give up one for the other. You can be a scientist, but you also get the opportunity to be creative as well.”
While some professionals in the geospatial field work on-location, Bell’s job is to synthesize and map this pre-collected data. She has made a variety of maps for private clients as well as the U.S. Forest Service, the National Park Service.
The length of time needed for each map varies, and some projects require more than a year. However, maps with pre-existing frameworks– such as city maps for news media– can be done in a day.
While Bell is both knowledgeable and passionate about mapmaking traditions, she is also interested in pushing the boundaries of what a map can be.
“[Maps are] also just a timestamp of how we thought the truth was at that time, because space is always changing, and things are always changing,” she says.
Mapmaking has been around for thousands of years, but the professionalization of cartography is a relatively new phenomenon. While added rules have led to precision and standardization, these rules have also been historically gatekept from less privileged communities. In certain cases, cartography has been used as a tool of oppression.
“By saying ‘this is what maps need, and you don’t know how to make a real map,’ we’re excluding voices from the whole spatial conversation. We’re saying you can’t claim space via a map,” Bell says. “I like to mess with the rules a little because of that. Like, okay, if you think that this isn’t a map, let me prove to you that it is– and why.”
She cites the work of Rosemary Wardley, a cartographer for National Geographic whose work challenges how space is claimed. Bell herself also has ideas for non-traditional projects, including a map that highlights where and when women feel safest walking alone at Western Washington University.
Cartography and Community
Beyond cartography, Bell is an avid rock climber and runner. Given her interests, this corner of Washington has proven an ideal place to live– and not just because of the outdoors.
As it happens, Western Washington is home to a “remarkably strong local cartography community.” Prior to the pandemic, Bell was helping to organize a monthly “nerd dinner” with other mapmakers in the area.
“Obviously, the pandemic happened, and [the dinner] didn’t happen,” Bell says. “And it hasn’t happened yet, but I do see a future.”
Bell is also interested in typeface design. Some of her creations, including the font faces “High Alpine” and “Belltopo Sans,” are available for download on her website. To learn more about Bell and her work, visit sarahbellmaps.com.