You've probably seen these Adirondack maps. Meet the artist who draws them
Nancy Bernstein has drawn a lot of maps in her life— hundreds, maybe more than a thousand. Her work has been featured in the Adirondack Explorer magazine for 30 years.
Bernstein's maps are simple looking and uncluttered, with just enough detail to orient you in the Adirondack Park. They often accompany a story in the Explorer magazine, helping visualize a hike, paddle, or ski.
“A lot of people don’t know who I am, which is fine," says Bernstein, "but they’ve seen my maps and when they do meet me they’re like, ‘Oh you’re the one that did that?’”
Bernstein is in her late 50s and on the day I meet her in her studio, she's wearing blue frame glasses that match her earrings.
At the moment, Bernstein is working on two different maps— one for the Explorer and another for Historic Saranac Lake, which is pretty detailed and mostly done. The goal is to show all the hamlets around Saranac Lake.
“I take my tracing paper, just line it up where I want it, what I want to catch,” Bernstein describes.
In this case, she's adding the old Adirondack railroad line, which is being converted into a rail trail. She lays her tracing paper over an official map of the Adirondacks.
“I line it up carefully, and this is where you need good vision and I have all kinds of glasses these days to be able to capture all this," says Bernstein. "Then you’re just basically just drawing with pencil on the tracing paper.”
She slowly traces all the slight curves of the old railroad track. Then it’s time to imprint that detail onto her hand-drawn map with another kind of paper.
“This is a transfer paper," Bernstein says and she grabs the slate gray sheet. "It’s kind of like carbon paper if you remember that from moons ago. When you press on one side, it leaves ink on the other side.”
She slides the transfer paper between her map and the tracing paper, which sits on top. Once all the map details are transferred over, it’s ready for the final touches.
“I use these fine nibbed pens— micron pens— and I use watercolors and sometimes I add little illustrations to my maps.”
Bernstein sometimes draws tiny little fire towers or lean-tos. For some maps, she uses color to distinguish lakes or land classifications, but often her maps are white, with rivers and streams in blue and the text in black.
Bernstein's maps are not very detailed, but they are distinct, reflecting the kind of art she has always felt most comfortable with.
“I never saw myself as a fine artist," says Bernstein, "because I didn’t think I had that creative sense to create something totally new.”
As a kid, Bernstein was drawn more towards what was real, what was right in front of her- plants and animals. She was also drawn to science, so she combined the two and started to pursue natural science illustration.
“I was early on in that when I got asked to do this map drawing for the Adirondack Explorer. Dick Beamish asked me to do a prototype and it kind of started me down that path.”
Beamish founded the Adirondack Explorer. Around that time, Bernstein was also going down another path at the time- home construction, starting with her own. When she moved to the Adirondack from the Hudson Valley in her 20s, she bought land with some friends in Vermontville, about 10 miles north of Saranac Lake.
“I had no idea how long I was going to stay. I was just going to build something to see if I could do it and I did ok," says Bernstein, walking up the wooden staircase to the second floor of her home.
Bernstein's home is cozy and beautiful, especially the timber frame addition. Bernstein worked for a timber frame company based in Jay for 20 years. Her home has sleek wooden lines, lots of light, and windows that frame the Adirondacks.
One large window in her art studio on the second floor looks out over Moose and McKenzie Mountains.
Bernstein is an avid outdoorswoman. When she’s not drawing or working her day job, now at the Adirondack North Country Association, chances are Bernstein is in the mountains.
“I’m a skier, a hiker, a paddler, I’ll jump on my bike, I’ll do anything to be outside depending on what the weather and ground conditions are good for, I’m all in."
Many of Bernstein's outdoor adventures help inform her art. She’s working on a map now for the Adirondack Explorer that will be part of a story written by Betsy Kepes. Kepes and some friends hiked from Long Lake down along the Northville Placid Trail to Lake Durant.
Bernstein hiked the Northville Placid trail a few years ago, so she says "I kind of pictured where I was along the map as I’m drawing, remembering swimming in Tirrell Pond and camping in a certain spot."
Over her 30-year career, Bernstein has drawn maps not just for the Explorer, but also for the Adirondack Council, for the 90-miler canoe race, and for Hornbeck Boats. She also does personal commissions.
“I’ve drawn maps for people’s weddings to help people find where to go. It’s kind of fun where things have ended up and it’s nice to be this not high profile person that kind of has little imprints all over the place.”