Inspiration Through a Journey of Exploration: Part One – Alex Hotchin

Stephen Mullaney

November 07, 2020

This week we begin the first in a three-part series called “Inspiration Through Exploration” where we will see how gifted and novice travelers alike can document their adventures through artwork, photography, writings and other means.

Today’s inspiration comes from Australian Alex Hotchin and her beautiful — and very unique maps. Next week, we will explore the photography of Federico Cabrera in his “Their Only Portrait Project.” And in Part Three, we will see how primitive and print journals are emerging, with representation from both the Adventure Journal and Bikepacking Journal.  

(Image ©2020 Alex Hotchin)

What we here at the National Center of Outdoor & Adventure Education (NCOAE) hope to accomplish in this series is to inspire outdoor enthusiasts to document their adventures in new and fascinating ways. Too often we just pick up our smartphone or camera to grab a quick shot of a passing bird, a mountain formation, or the cool gear of the hiker in front of us.

We are hoping to encourage you to move outside the boxes (devices, phones, computers) that are typical of  modern-day sharing. For example, I carry a camera on my bicycle, usually strapped to my climbing harness or in my boats. Ninety-nine percent of the time I don’t touch it. So, why carry it at all? Because maybe one percent of the time, I see something that I want to help illustrate the story and memory of that specific moment in time, during that specific journey. I like to take pictures of the unexpected.

Most of the time, I also carry a roll of colored pencils and a notebook. Drawing takes more time, so it forces me to stop and think about how to best combine lines and colors to represent something meaningful to me and to connect my story with those who might see it later on.

Many times upon returning from a long outing or expedition for NCOAE, I show my family and friends my journal, drawings, and photos to accompany my stories. This gives people the opportunity to come up with questions, engage with the landscape and not just ask, “How was your trip? “What did you do?” Sharing on a personal level allows for a secondary depth of exploration, face to face (or six feet apart for now).

Meet Alex Hotchin

Alex is an illustrator who creates books and maps to tell her stories. Her illustrations are inspiring and the maps she creates are personal to herself and to her specific journeys.

When looking at Alex’s work, you get the sense you have actually joined the journey. Alex takes two-dimensional representations of maps and makes them jump off the page. Scale is not specific to cartography, with the scale offering viewers a look through the artist/adventurer’s eyes. What she saw out there — the beauty, the obstacles and cultural significance — is laid out before us in lines, shapes and colors.  

Can you actually find your way using her maps? I suppose that depends on where you want to go. We asked Alex to provide us with a little detail about the work she does, and here’s what she had to say:

NCOAE: What are your favorite ways to engage with the environment, and where are your favorite places?

Alex Hotchin: I’d say anything that involves walking or riding. And that means going as slow as possible to allow time for stopping to admire leaves, stones, flowers and birds, or to check out which way the wind is blowing. Having the time to pull out the sketchbook and write or draw or paint along the way is also necessary. Slow journeys make for the most worthwhile adventures, and so the best way to engage with any environment is to have as much time as possible.  Humans rush around too much. It takes a long time for a tree to grow, so we can’t pretend to get to know a forest with a quick walkthrough.

NCOAE: Do you remember when you first started to use art as a tool for personal documentation?

Alex: It started in the late ’90s, when I embarked on a long European trip — which is something a lot of Australians do. But I traveled with very few finances, and as a consequence, ended up spending a lot of time drawing. It occurred to me at the time how much I was able to get to know somewhere by spending the time to study the patterns, scale and details of buildings and cities and mountains and trees.

(Illustration ©2020 Alex Hotchin)

NCOAE: Your maps are gorgeous and seem highly personal while being universal. Why maps?

Alex: Thank you! In 2011-2012, I rode my bike from Scotland to Cambodia and navigated the old-fashioned way by using paper maps. I didn’t take a GPS or phone. I loved the challenge of finding my way, using the contours and landmarks. I got lost a lot, but there was great reward in asking people for directions, and then interpreting their responses. The beauty in being lost is you have the opportunity to interact with others and the experience of being thrust into the unknown and all that comes with that.

When I returned home, I made some drawings about that trip (which were the first maps I ever made). They were an attempt to explain what I had experienced and so they became story drawings. It seemed natural that they be maps, layering stories over place. Then I started getting requests to make maps of all kinds of things, thus beginning my journey as a mapmaker.

NCOAE: When you step out into adventure on an expedition, what do you pack in order to record, draw or document what you are seeing?

Alex: Always a journal — and my favorites are the Moleskin Japanese accordion ones that fold out into one long drawing. I love being able to draw a continuous story, and they are double sided so I can make drawings and notes on one side and perhaps a map for notes on the other. There is also a little pocket at the back to store small found treasures. I take a variety of drawing pens with a few nib sizes, and definitely small paint brushes and a compact watercolor set.

NCOAE: Finally. do you complete the process in the field? How long does a map take to complete?

Alex: I do all my collecting of stories and observations in the field. It’s a time of listening to the story that is around me and so I don’t finish anything. Just collect. I treat every observation as valuable, and I record it in some way with a drawing or note. Often my observations in the field raise more questions than answers, so when I get home, I need to do some research on where I have been and what I have seen. That’s when I start compiling the map, using the information I have collected and with what I find elsewhere. My maps can take anywhere from a few days to a few weeks to create, depending on the size and complexity. 

Inspired by Alex’s journey? That’s great to hear! I suggest that you head out — anywhere. Go for a bike ride or a neighborhood walk and look at the urban and natural landscapes in a new way. Take note of what catches your eye. Enlarge those visual and emotional imprints into your own map. Make it personal. Make it fun.

After all, cartographers have been adding a little “magic” to maps for hundreds of years.

About the Author: Stephen Mullaney is the Director of School Partnerships at The National Center for Outdoor & Adventure Education (NCOAE). He has worked domestically and internationally with schools, organizations, and wilderness programs. His classrooms have ranged from dilapidated trailers at overcrowded, underfunded schools to the Himalayan mountains and everything imaginable in between. His past students include gang members/prisoners, education majors, college and university professors, and pioneers in the field out outdoor and adventure-based experiential education. Stephen’s philosophy is to focus on the development of positive working and learning environments. He brings more than a quarter of a century of education experience and understanding of human nature to any organization, whether it is an education institution or a private company. His writing has appeared in adventure sports/education journals, magazines and on the web. Stephen prefers to arrive by bicycle and sit in the dirt.

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