In the late 1960s, Michael Reagan found himself living in a drain pipe in Honolulu. Not long before, he’d been honorably discharged from the Navy after serving in the Vietnam War, and before arriving in Honolulu had hitchhiked through a west Texas winter and joined the hippie brigades of Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco. He eventually left Hawaii for various ports of call in the South Pacific and the Caribbean, a spell living in a cave in the Andalusian mountains of Spain and over a brothel in New Orleans. “I was essentially homeless for three years, but I didn’t think of it that way,” Michael says. “It was an adventure.”
That sense of adventure and fascination with the far-away are evident in the delicately colored and beautifully rendered maps Michael’s drawn over the past 40 years for such clients as National Geographic, The New Yorker, Smithsonian, and Architectural Digest, to name just a few. Commissioned as illustrations for accompanying articles on travel, politics, warfare, anthropology, geology, they are among some 2,000 maps Michael’s produced so far, a talent he discovered early on, during his two years as a young boy living with his family in Japan. “I think the strongest cultural influence as far as my own art goes would be the clean and simple art of Japan. I can still remember it all so well,” Michael says.
Coupled with his childhood attraction for atlases and their descriptions of exotic destinations and unexplored terrain, it’s little wonder that Michael eventually took to the road and the high seas before settling eight years ago, as he neared 60 years old, in the mountains outside Asheville.
Watercolor, Michael’s preferred medium, lifts his luminous maps far above the merely pragmatic, imparting the sense of adventure and discovery that makes his work so much in demand. “It’s just such a beautiful medium to me,” Michael says. “I never tire of watching those colors flow across a white board. Other artists tell me they wonder at my ability to ‘control’ watercolor, but I don’t think you can really control it. I think if you love watercolor like I do then you can begin to understand its nature, and it then allows you to work with it, not against it.”
When he takes on a commission for a map illustration, atlases and geophysical charts are first consulted for accuracy, after which Michael outlines the physical dimensions of his subject and inks in its place names. Only then does he take up his brush and watercolors. “I think the magic and unexplainable mystery comes from the watercolor itself and the choice of colors for each different place on this earth,” Michael says. “Dry colors for the desert, wet and lush colors for the jungles of the world, beautiful blues for the tropical oceans, cold grays for the northern seas.”
Michael’s actually set foot in more than a few of the places he’s illustrated, including much of west Africa, where he served in the Peace Corps in the late ’70s as a way, he says, of making amends for his earlier involvement in the devastation left by the Vietnam War. “All the maps I’ve painted since 9/11 of the wars in the Middle East, maps of Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, have been the most difficult for me to paint because of my deep belief that these American invasions of those countries did not and should not have happened,” Michael says. “What I’ve tried to do with the maps I’ve done of these troubled places is to show the beauty that’s there, to go beyond the violence and heartbreaking human tragedies.” A further benefit of his Peace Corps work in Côte d’Ivoire was meeting his fellow volunteer and future wife, Christina, with whom he has raised four sons during their 35 years of marriage.
Michael’s artistic journeys are as impressive as his physical ones. Besides the ongoing series of map-making commissions, he’s been experimenting with a series of large-scale color field oil paintings, a new direction joining his mixed media work of the 1980s shown at the North Carolina Museum of Art. There’s also an ongoing series of exquisite avian watercolors commissioned by outdoor and nature magazines like Outside and Audubon. A new series of maps is underway based on the lives of noted artists, with a map of Gauguin’s South Pacific paradise, Hiva Oa, and another of Caravaggio’s 17th-century Italy already produced; and there’s a one-man show of his maps planned for this fall in Washington D.C.
“I’m 67 years old but I hope I’m nowhere near retirement,” Michael says, each of his maps drawing on a lifetime of the adventurous, the remote, the mysterious. Still vivid for him is a night-time trip by boat along a remote river in Côte d’Ivoire to a small village, a tiny dot in an otherwise green expanse of wilderness. Borne along with him on the boat were the coffins of two villagers being carried home to their final rest; but when Michael arrived at the village, there was much joy at the birth of twins to a village woman that very night, two newborns Michael was allowed to hold in his arms. “It’s the kind of thing I try to get in my maps,” Michael says, “a sense of the power of those deaths and those births, the blood on the infants, the smell of the river, the crocodiles, the yams cooking in palm oil, the beauty of the people. If my maps are successful, then they somehow catch just a glimpse of the place.”
A sampling of Michael Reagan’s maps along with examples of his non-cartographical work can be seen at mapsbymikereagan.com.