Illustration Process: Yak Map

Last October, Albuqerque poet Hakim Bellamy went to DC to lead a workshop within a larger social justice project, From Brown v. Board to Ferguson. Led by The International Coalition of Sites of Conscience, the project was launched in October 2015, and is serving all of us through a wide array of initiatives. Please visit their website for more, including pictures of the youth leaders involved.  If you have questions, or wish to contribute to the valuable work done by Sites of Conscience, please contact Tramia Jackson, Project Manager. 

The Brief

The clients were Hakim, and through him a complex group: the social justice powerhouse, Sites of Conscience; their staff; and most importantly, the youth leaders who gathered to learn and grow at the Youth Engagement Summit. In brief, “…the Coalition hosted a Youth Engagement Summit in November 2017 at the National Civil Rights Museum, at the site of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination. Over two dozen young people attended the summit, receiving training and guidance from dialogue and civic engagement experts, including nationally recognized social media activist April Reign.”

Hakim and I agreed that my task was to produce a “Yak Map,” my term for the kind of visual representation of a conversation illustrators have been doing so beautifully in recent times. I’ve done a few before, and found that the process of being both in the conversation and in the drawing really productive of off the cuff, on the fly conceptual choices. Sometimes these quick intuitions really did seem to probe deeper. And of course, sometimes my intuition seemed merely straightforward, or at worst, kind of clunky. No problem. This kind of illustration process is like throwing confetti–it makes a cloud of colorful possibilities, rather than a single, sober communique. 

I figured that the Yak Map form suited the youthful end of the client population, as its bright clamor would likely feel exuberantly positive. I also figured that the Yak Map form would suit the budget Hakim had negotiated with his client. 

And so I set out.


My first experience was of exploring gleefully, and then falling into the dark well of horror and suffering that the conference assumed as a given. Which it is. The term “school-to-prison pipeline” is not a handy catchphrase, designed to motivate the Progressive base to vote democrat. It’s the truth. It’s what happens in our grand country. Collectively we are re-creating the system of slavery we believe to be abolished, and it’s nauseating, and heartbreaking, and insane. It cannot stand, and yet it does. I started a Yak Map drawing with the thought that banishing these horrors to the literal edges of the Map would support the youth leaders in being mindful of the horrors, and yet focused on the power they had. Seemed sensible. And yet I couldn’t keep moving with that drawing; it seemed to get too clever, too intricate, like a man mumbling himself into an ever-shrinking closet. I put it away for a while, and turned to other projects.

Coming back some days later, I read through the distinction between an Asset Map and a geographical map. It made sense, suddenly, to combine icons representing immaterial things (“Caring,” or “Community”) with icons representing real places, like warehouses or museums. I decided to drop the Map I’d started and begin again, this time with the admittedly more complex and time-consuming form of a map made in Photoshop out of B&W drawings scanned, placed, and digitally colored. I explored color palettes created by fashion designers, and saved to a Pinterest board I created for the project (linked above), knowing my plan. 

This went along swimmingly for a while. But as I failed to meet yet another deadline extension, I looked back and realized that in my zeal to rewrite the map of the American capital into a utopia of resources, connections and celebrations for new social justice leaders, I’d gone way over budget in ways I would never bring to my clients. Moreover, I’d strayed from the original Yak Map idea. The map, just half populated, had lost its spark. Gah!

So the next day, after another communication with Hakim, I buckled down. I got out my trusty markers, my big pile of 12” x 18” printer paper, and made the above Yak Map in pretty much one five-hour stint. 

Phew! Oh I felt so much better.

Having gotten it photographed by the incredible Margot Geist, rested and then delivered it to Hakim, I feel so much better. These feelings or anxiety, or excitement, or relief, or fatigue–these feelings are important guides to making change as my process unfolds. Being in constant relationship with this part of my consciousness–my embodied connection to gut feelings, to heartache, and ultimately to mystery–this is my most important creative skill. 

Having a moment to reflect on it, I realize that the Map contains no direct references to the horrors of our collective history, or to our current insanity. To me it makes sense as a cloud of things We Can Do. It turns out that my point in making this work is that while the weight of our iniquity feels completely traumatizing, WE ARE ENOUGH. We have what we need, no matter where we are located, no matter what opposes us, to engage in Life directly and consciously. And that in itself makes all the difference our world needs. 

A huge thank you to Hakim for the invitation to make a Yak Map. 

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