Mapping Out an Art Career: Sophie Parr

For Sophie Parr, owner of Ellison Bay’s Northern Arts Collective, what started out as a few simple sketches ended up as a full-blown career.

“I was doodling a map on a family vacation one winter and I posted it on social media,” Parr said. “Then I did another one, then I did another one, and I just kept going.”

And she’s still going. Not long after Parr started drawing maps in early 2019, friends and family began to commission her for her work. By summer of that year, Parr had transformed her new hobby into a small business, Maps by Sophie. By 2021, her own gallery was up and running.

Judging by the intricacy of her work and the success of her now three-year-old gallery, it might come as a surprise to learn that Parr has no background in art.

Instead, she has a master’s degree in urban planning. Before her move to Door County, Parr worked as a transit planner for a bus system in Minnesota, using mapping software to create digital maps.

A long-standing interest in all things transportation – road designs, maps, railroad systems – was what drew her to that field. 

“I grew up in the age where you had to Google directions prior to leaving the house, then print them off and put them in your front seat,” Parr said. But instead of referring to the maps as she drove, she would study them, then turn them upside-down to see if she could remember how to get to her destination.

“I liked the idea of being able to figure out the route because I really knew where I was going,” Parr said. 

Sophie Parr in her Ellison Bay studio. Photo by Rachel Lukas.

The maps now hanging on the walls of Parr’s studio look little like the ones she worked on during her urban-planning career; they’re more about form than function, and they’re drawn rather than digitized, with Parr penning in each tiny street by hand. 

To make a map, Parr finds the location she wants on Google Earth and takes a screenshot, then resizes it so that every half-mile on the map is equal to one inch on the drawing.

“All of my maps have a very cohesive look to them because they’re all the same ratio,” Parr said.

Once the image is sized correctly, Parr adds a digital grid to it, then recreates that grid with pencil on paper. Roads and rivers are penciled in before being lined with ink.

While mapmaking as an art form isn’t as common as mediums like painting or sculpture, it has its devotees, many of whom Parr has connected with via social media. Others come to her to commission maps of places that are special to them, showing where they live, where they got married or where they’ve traveled. 

“It’s an interesting little community,” Parr said. “It’s not very large, but there are people that love maps.”


The pandemic was what prompted Parr’s move to Door County. Before that, she was living in Madison, working for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources and coaching high school swimming.

“When COVID happened, my school never opened,” Parr said. “My family lives up here [in Door County], so I just decided to take the leap and relocate.”

Around a year after Parr moved, the building that’s now Northern Arts Collective became available for rent. Parr, who had been working as a freelance consultant doing urban planning (a gig she’s still juggling alongside her gallery,) jumped on the opportunity. 

She didn’t overthink the decision.

“I just kept saying, ‘I will figure it out, I will figure it out, I will figure it out,’” Parr said.

And figure it out she did. The transition into Door County was a smooth one, Parr said – she’d lived and worked in the area for ten years on and off, and she had family all over the peninsula, as well as a supportive community of fellow female business owners in Northern Door. 

The one thing that was difficult to adjust to was knowing she’d likely stay here for the long haul, since previously, the artist had moved around a lot. 

Still, she always felt Door County pulling her back.

“I always kind of knew I’d end up here,” Parr said. “I just didn’t know when.”

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