China to Chapel Hill: UNC student turns maps into art around the globe

By Katie Clark

UNC-Chapel Hill senior Reid Brown, 21, is a typical senior. A student, musician, environmental scientist and world traveler who spends his spare time hanging out with friends, playing music and talking with his girlfriend. However, he also has another hobby that makes him, well, not so typical.

He creates artwork with maps.

Brown is in the business of creating original cartographic prints, he said, his smile then slightly more determined as he proudly laughed over a cup of coffee in a bustling bagel shop. Artwork that, in his words, is “a tangible embodiment of who he is and where he’s been.”

“Basically they’re black and white; that’s the art style, so it’s minimalist,” Brown said. “It’s just to show a city or town’s character through its streetscape.”

He will graduate from UNC-CH in May with a bachelor’s degree in environmental science and a minor in statistics. He also studies music and is a self-taught pianist.

During his studies, Brown learned how to use a program called ArcGIS, an information system that works with maps and geographic material. Through the Geographic Information System, or GIS software, Brown finds and edits portions of maps for his posters before personalizing them in Photoshop.

“It’s maps by geospatial data,” Brown said. “Kinda nerdy, but it’s really cool.”

Brown was fascinated with what the GIS system could do and wanted to use it as a medium for artwork.

“It also kind of reinforces what we learned in our [environmental studies] classes,” Brown said. “It’s fun, it’s an application of stuff I learned.”

Brown spends lots of time in Davis Library building maps in the GIS system for his artwork.

“At its most basic [GIS] is a piece of software to make maps,” Philip McDaniel, GIS Librarian in Davis Library, said. “You can use it to optimize behavior, travel time or service areas around places like hospitals, and then you can use it to communicate all this.”

McDaniel has seen other students use GIS for fine art projects and to study certain landscapes. Students and professionals who use the programs for their studies and products, but not for an on-the-side side business.

The artwork Brown creates, however, may be referred to as a “side hustle.” He does not predict a strong profit from his art, but continues to make and sell pieces for friends, family and any fellow students and community members who commission him.

The birth of an idea

Brown does not call himself an artist, and said he never spent much time doing arts and crafts as a kid. Instead, the map art began during his world travels while working in China.

“This past summer I got to go to China and work in a research lab,” Brown said. “In the period between school and going to China, I was like, ‘I’m going to set this little challenge for myself.’ I wasn’t sure what it was at the time.”

While in China, Brown learned that Chinese culture largely involves gift giving. This inspired him to give gifts to those he met. He made cartographic maps for each of his mentors. These pieces encompassed portions of maps from Kai Fung, China, to Nigeria and Ghana.

The artwork is also a way for Brown to face certain fears and to challenge himself as a person. He is nervous about his inability to follow through with certain projects in his life, and thinks that perhaps these maps can help lead him to a place of confidence.

“I don’t want to be too serious about something and not have it work out, so I see this as a continuation of things I’m into,” Brown said. “It’s really just following through. I’m competitive against myself because I like studying a goal and then realizing it. This was one of the first times I really committed to something that big.”

His favorite piece of artwork that he has done is a map of Chapel Hill. The map was one of his earlier pieces and did not come without challenges.

“The biggest hurdle was getting it printed. The first piece looked terrible, it was on copier paper,” Brown said, recalling the weeks of planning, editing and trial and error. “It’s just been getting better every time. Nothing is ever as easy as it seems. There’s a lesson in that.”

Bringing lines to life

According to Brown, other companies who make cartographic pieces may have maps that are more detailed, but they are much less personal.

“I have to have a whole conversation with someone asking, ‘What do you want? Does this look good to you?’” Brown said.

Other companies also sell pieces in a more streamlined fashion, but Brown claims they charge almost five times as much as him.

“I sell them for like $15 to $25 each,” Brown said. “I probably should charge more, but I don’t want to gouge anyone. The reason why I made this is because I felt it was way too expensive for other ones.”

Elias Tymas, a sophomore at UNC-CH, saw the artwork and immediately took a liking to it.

“My dad was an artist, so I have an appreciation for art,” Tymas said. “The art is so cool, and the fact that you can choose your own town is awesome. It shows that the person is talented.”

Tymas stated that he would pay $20 for a student-produced piece like Brown’s.

The business of making, selling and delivering personalized map art is not something that Brown foresees as a steady future income. In the short term, however, he has plans for a website, possible streetwear and to get his cartography into businesses on UNC-CH’s campus.

“I don’t see it getting crazy big, but the eventual goal is to get them in the student stores,” Brown said.

Brown believes that Student Stores would provide more visibility for his work. For now, he plans to sell his art around campus and would like to set up tables in the Student Union.

“I can ask students, ‘Hey, you wanna support me?’” Brown said.

Kat Doan purchased a map of Jinan, China as a gift from Reid last year. She saw the artwork on Brown’s Instagram, and thought that it was unique.

“I try to support local artists, and I insisted on paying for his work. The price was very fair, in my opinion,” Doan said. “He kept me really involved in the decision-making and the recipient and I are really happy with how it turned out!”

Brown likes to teach himself new skills and said that others should try this too.

“I think everyone has something they’re into. If they haven’t found it yet, they’ll find it eventually,” Brown said.

If you are interested in Reid Brown’s art, you can contact him at or by phone at 336-847-9484.

Edited by Maya Jarrell