On the Record with ... Tom Willcockson

It was only a matter of time before artist and mapmaker Tom Willcockson got his name on the cover of a book.

The skills were there, collected from his background in history and years spent working at the Newberry Library in Chicago. Couple that with an interest in illustrations, and it was only a matter of time before the Woodstock man compiled something such as his April publication.

“Twelve Moons: A Year with the Sauk and Meskwaki, 1817-1818,” tells the month-to-month story of a couple of upper Midwest Indian tribes.

Northwest Herald Reporter Shawn Shinneman visited Willcockson in his work space – his book-heavy Woodstock home – to talk Twelve Moons, and to hear about Willcockson’s day job as a mapmaker.

Shinneman: Why did you decide to create this book, specifically, about a year in the lives of the Sauk and the Meskwaki?

Willcockson: I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the [David] Macaulay books, “Castle,” and sort of the early, illustrated books. I’ve always really admired those, but I was always more interested in sort of taking that idea and trying to apply that to more local history topics for the Illinois, Chicago region.

I knew a little about the Sauk and ... the Meskwaki, but I didn’t know much. When I left the Newberry, I started working as a mapmaker – which I still do, it’s my day job, basically. I got a request to work at the Hauberg Museum doing some maps for new exhibits that they were doing. ... In talking with them and doing maps for them, I got a good look at their exhibits. ... [They have] a sort of walk-through diorama of the Sauk, but also the Meskwaki are a very important ally tribe to the Sauk. Looking at these exhibits, it showed this year life cycle. I thought that would be a great theme for a book – to take an Illinois tribe and show exactly how they lived throughout a year.

Shinneman: So they backed the book – the museum?

Willcockson: Yeah.

Shinneman: Did you use other sources of research for the book? Did that exhibit serve as the basis for ...

Willcockson: It was the inspiration for it, and then I did a lot of reading. There are a number of excellent books on the Sauk and the Meskwaki. And Elizabeth Carvey, who wrote the text for the book, she’s the director (of the Hauberg Museum). She’s very knowledgeable.

I knew I had enough information and knowledge to be able to put sketches [together].

And then I would go back to Beth and show her, get her input, and then get input from some of the other scholars in the area to get things corrected and kind of re-adjust things.

Shinneman: Interesting that with your history background, with your background in libraries, you’re doing the illustrations for these. Where did the artistic ability come from?

Willcockson: I have always been drawing since I can remember. When I went to college, I wasn’t really a minor in art but I took a lot of art classes. So I’d always done a lot of illustrating and drawing.

Shinneman: Switching gears a bit, how does one become a mapmaker?

Willcockson: [laughs] If you want to be a mapmaker, you probably ought to start in the geography department of a major university. In my case, I just learned it as I went along. I consider myself really more of a mapmaker-illustrator. These days, map-making involves GIS and fairly sophisticated computer statistical stuff. I’m a generation before that. The maps that I’m doing are maps for books and illustrations, things like that.

Shinneman: So do you learn what the place looks like by walking it? Do you take measurements? How do you really get a feel for the scale of things?

Willcockson: When I’m doing a map of a zoo, or a college campus, or something like that – these days, there’s so much on the Web. I can basically go on the Web and get a good survey-type map. I can go and find aerial photographs that are on the Web, usually quite detailed.

Shinneman: Google Maps or something?

Willcockson: Yeah, basically. There’s a couple other sites, too. I used to actually travel to these places. I did a map of William Paterson College out in New Jersey, and I came out there for a couple of days and basically photographed the entire campus. I walked the entire campus photographing buildings. I occasionally still do that, but I really don’t have to anymore.

Shinneman: It seems like sort of tedious work. Is that true?

Willcockson: [laughs] Yeah, it’s very, very, very detail-oriented.

Shinneman: You’re obviously a history person. Tell me about your favorite historical site you’ve gotten to visit.

Willcockson: That’s difficult to say. One of the parks I really liked – and it’s partially the nostalgia – was Lincoln’s New Salem [State Historic Site]. I did a map of that early on. The thing that was so neat about that was that I used to go there as a kid. From St. Louis, we’d always do a trip up there.

The blacksmith shop, the wool-carding mill and all the little parts of this town are all there as they would’ve looked in the 1830s. It’s just such a fascinating place to be able to walk around and to see all the buildings and try and think, ‘How did this place work?’

In terms of this state, that one’s always had a lot of appeal to me. And it’s served as an inspiration to do things like this book, because it’s trying to recreate how people lived.

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