Henderson County mapmaker chronicles mountain topography in folk-art hues
As far as 19th-century literature goes, Robert Louis Stevenson’s Treasure Island is undeniably riveting. Complete with swashbuckling pirates, mutinous sword fights, and the prospect of gold, it’s every little boy’s dream. But when Jim Mitchem read the novel in elementary school, he skimmed through the gory action and instead spent hours admiring the treasure map found inside Billy Bones’ sea chest.
The map, which Stevenson published alongside his text, details a fictional island “nine miles long and five across, shaped, you might say, like a fat dragon standing up.” Depicted in black ink are land-locked harbors, thick forests, and a looming hill dubbed “The Spy-Glass.”
The illustration transported Mitchem to a fanciful world far away from his childhood bedroom in Norfolk, Virginia.
“That’s when I became fascinated with maps,” Mitchem remembers. By second or third grade, he began drawing aerial renderings. “They were mostly of imaginary islands,” he says. “You could see the lay of the land — the lakes, the ocean, the ships, the carts and horses, the houses.”
Mitchem’s passion for cartography persisted well into adulthood. For 20-some years, he worked as a field technician for Bell Atlantic (now Verizon) by day, spending his evenings studying paper maps. However, it wasn’t until 1999 — a year after he retired to the North Carolina coast — that he began professionally publishing his own.
“My maps took off right away,” Mitchem says. He started with Hatteras Island, capturing its sandy shores in pencil and watercolor. Then, he worked his way up the coast, sketching other islands like Nags Head and Corolla.
For 14 years, the maps sold in different stores throughout the Outer Banks. Mitchem even shoehorned a niche in National Park Service gift shops. But four years ago, while traveling the country in an RV, he and his wife felt called to the mountains.
“We moved to Hendersonville because of the weather and people,” says Mitchem. “There’s no better place in the world to live.”
Soon after putting down roots in Henderson County, Mitchem was convinced by a close friend — an Appalachian Trail thru-hiker — to begin charting maps of the mountains. It was a challenge at first.
North Carolina’s islands are flat and straightforward, Mitchem admits. Meanwhile, the mountains are more feral subjects with soaring peaks, plummeting valleys, and a smattering of tiny villages. There’s depth and richness in these hills — both of which are tricky to capture on a flat sheet of paper.
But after months spent worrying over rivers and ridgelines, Mitchem released his first map of the mountains. Since then, the artist has produced three other maps of Western North Carolina. Each depicts the region with punctilious accuracy; for instance, Mitchem’s popular “Aerial Vision Map of the Blue Ridge Mountains of NC” stretches from Hogback Mountain on the South Carolina line to ski destination Beech Mountain 100 miles north in the High Country, with hundreds of named peaks identified in between.
Of course, in real life, the mountains aren’t awash in folk-art pastels: banana, lime, bubblegum pink. (Unless, perhaps, you catch them at sunrise.) But Mitchem says he didn’t want to paint “a big blob of green” peaks, so he took a few creative liberties.
The result is whimsical yet grounding. Mitchem says he’s often approached by Hendersonville locals who never knew the names of the powder-blue peaks surrounding their hometown until they looked at his maps.
“People nowadays rely so much on GPS,” the artist says. “They have no clue where they actually are.”
From Mitchem’s perspective, a true treasure map doesn’t lead you to a trunk full of rubies and doubloons. Instead, it helps you understand your place in the world.
“When you can truly see your surroundings,” says Mitchem, “you develop such a deeper appreciation for the land.”
Jim Mitchem, Hendersonville, etsy.com/shop/jimsmaps. Mitchem’s maps are carried by many local venues including Art MoB Studios & Marketplace, 124 4th Ave. East, Hendersonville, artmobstudios.com; Bubba O’Leary’s General Store (385 Main St., Chimney Rock, bubbaolearys.com); New Life Appalachia (3741 Hendersonville Road, Fletcher, 828-707-1850).