Mapping out memories with artist Marlene Creates

Think about the neighbourhood you grew up in. Where was your house? How far away was your school? The nearest park? Which paths did you take to get to these places? 

If you had to draw a map of that neighbourhood today, from your memories, how would it look?

That map would be a memory map: an artistic and archival technique to preserve our own stories and record those of others.

"When you're drawing a memory map you actually mentally put yourself back in that place," said Marlene Creates, an environmental artist who has an exhibit of memory maps at The Rooms in St. John's.

These maps are different from those you might use to travel the province's highways, she said, or to teach a child the names and locations of the country's provinces and territories.

The focus of memory maps isn't accuracy or scale. It's about the details people remember from a particular place and time.

For that reason, two people could plot entirely different memory maps of the same place, Creates told CBC Radio's the St. John's Morning Show.

Memory maps in northern Labrador

Creates, who lives in Portugal Cove, first began working with memory maps while travelling in remote places in the British Isles. She would speak to locals usually elderly people  and ask them for directions.

I was really glad that I went when I did. - Marlene Creates

"When they drew a map for me to help me find my way, I was fascinated by the things they chose from their own environments as landmarks," she said.

Eventually, Creates began to incorporate memory maps into her artwork.

Some of the maps in her exhibit at The Rooms were drawn in the late 1980s by people in Nain, Davis Inlet and Hopedale.

The map makers were Innu and Inuit elders who had lived in tiny communities, sometimes just a family or two, in the small bays along the northern Labrador coastline.

Creates also visited the abandoned communities, collected natural objects from the sites and took portraits of the elders.

"I was really glad that I went when I did," she said; the elders have all since died, and their maps are part of the documentation of a particular way of life that they were the last to live.

'You would never think to ask'

Creates suggests using memory maps in oral history research and other historical documentation.

When interviewing someone, ask them to draw a memory map, she said.

"They will be putting themselves back in that place and they will remember things to tell you that you would never think to ask them about."

Finding local inspiration 

Following his interview with Marlene Creates, Jamie Fitzpatrick of The St. John's Morning Show drew a memory map of Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont., where he lived in the early 2000s. 

Sherry Vivian/CBC

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