Impressionist Geography: 50 States, 50 Words

Call it “Impressionist Geography.”

Impressionist painting, a largely Parisian art movement from the latter portion of the 19th century, dealt largely with rather pedestrian subject matter on a specific day and time, as it was seen and interpreted by the artist. A number of these paintings were focused on capturing the every-day scenery, as opposed to the exceptional or posed subject matters found in work from the Romantic era.  This has been seen by many art historians as a direct answer by painters to the newly developing medium of photography.  L’Absinthe by Edgar Degas, and Paris: A Rainy Day by Gustave Caillebotte are some notable examples. Other works would interpret a particular scene repeatedly  from one day to the next, creating a series of works with dramatically different results that depended not only on the subject matter itself, but the changing mood and life experience of the artist.  Claude Monet’s Water Lilies is probably the most famous example of this process.

What, then, is the point of this way of thinking? I am certainly not a Parisian painter living 150 years ago. The works by Degas, Caillebotte, Pissarro, Manet and others, those capturing life’s banal moments, serve as interesting windows into the past, as does the photography to which these artists were responding.  But here, I want to branch off specifically to Monet’s approach.  Monet focused on water lilies for most of the end of his career, creating some 250 paintings in the series, each unique and different.  While I could care little about water lilies, looking through the series as a progression gives a window not into the past itself, but into Monet’s life and experience.  Even if I don’t know Monet from Neptune — which, I don’t — it’s still interesting to see how those painting change as his experiences do, and to make inferences about his life.

We basically get to have an interview with a man who no longer exists… and just like any conversation, we project ourselves into forming an interpretation of what he presents.  Sure, his lilies are “pretty” and they certainly brighten the rooms of the galleries in which they hang today.  But to me, the true effectiveness of any work of art, or even any effective visual communication (this map is certainly no work of art…) is whether or not it makes you think about something.

This map is intended to be like one painting in a series of water lilies. The map above is inherently individual, autobiographical, and yes, impressionist. To create this map, I made a list of the states and used free association to compile the very first word I thought of for each state. I specifically tried to avoid city and town names, as well as human toponyms for the physical environment, though a couple of national parks are there.  And so, we have a one-word impression of each of the 50 states, as they existed in my head on the morning of November 9, 2010 at 8:35 am.  It’s a compilation of my experiences to-date, my thoughts, my mood, my brain’s function, my memory, my values, and even my social relationship as it exists at that exact moment in time, and it’s a snapshot.  And what is more banal to a geographer than a map of his or her home region?  If I made the a list of words for each state today, three days later, it would probably be slightly different.  If I was in a more negative mood the third time around, it would probably be even more different.  And so on.

This seems, on a glance, to be nothing more than a narcissistic exercise, suitable considering the innate self-loving evident in most personal blogs.  Is this any different than keeping a stash of old photos of oneself around?  Facebook provides an easy depository for this now, where you can click on your own profile picture and see an album of how you’ve changed, in visual appearance, since the album feature was created in 2006.  You can see your long-haired hippie phase, your goatee phase, and many more… and wow, haven’t you come a long way in just four years?  Such a map provides a snapshot of my brain, a one-time freeze-frame of my mental geography and what that says about me.  If nothing else, I can look back on the map in the future and see where I’ve been, so to speak.

I am purposely not providing any further explanation to the words as they are chosen.  Why?  Because if you look at this map, even if you don’t know me and don’t know a thing about me, you’re going to see these words and begin connecting the dots. You’re going to have your own perception of why I chose the words I chose, and you’re going to come up with other possibilities for your own map. It’s inevitable, because maps draw us in, and make us think.  You’re going to know me a little better than you did before, and whatever ideas you scratch from this map about me will be absolutely 100% true; “knowing” someone is only a compilation of impressions and perceptions about that person, because we can never truly be in their heads or walk in their shoes.

At the same time, while figuring out how you perceive my thoughts, with a little self-reflection, you’ll realize that you’re projecting your own thoughts, feelings and experiences into your interpretation, and then you learn more about yourself in the process.

Author: Andrew Shears

Andrew Shears is an Assistant Professor of Geography at Mansfield University in Mansfield, Pennsylvania. His research interests lie at an intersection of the human-environmental nexus, and includes branches of mapping, technological, memorialization and urban geographies. He lives in Wellsboro, Pennsylvania with his wife Amy, a professional photographer.

15 thoughts on “Impressionist Geography: 50 States, 50 Words”

  1. A few alternatives:

    Kentucky – Bourbon
    Maine – Lobsters
    Michigan – Cars
    North Carolina – Tobacco
    Wisconsin – Cheese or Beer


  2. This map made me laugh hysterically. I don’t know why, but I just totally get your incredibly awesome sarcastic wit showing through in most of these words. I guess that’s the point, right? To know you through a different medium than your physical body? I like this map a lot. I think that it is probably my favorite of your series so far. Although, I guess the rest of America is more interested in looking at what TV show is from their state than thinking about free association and impressionism. What does this say about America? Hmm…. Also, you knew I was going to say this, but you have the “wrong” impression of New York as a state. My word for New York as I sit in Kansas right now thinking of home: colorful.

  3. The choice of ‘Urban’ for New York certainly fits New York City. But any state is more than a single municipality.

    According to, New York State contains 18.4 million acres of forested land, millions more acres than in Kentucky (11.931 million acres of forest), a state which is labeled as ‘backwoods.’

    How can a state that has more woods than the ‘backwoods’ be ‘urban?’

    Maybe nominalism is all wrong — naming a thing doesn’t control a thing. New York is urban and backwoods at the same time, defying efforts to sum up a big, complex thing in just one, stereotyped word.

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