Lisa Middleton

Painting the world from above: finding art in maps


Lisa Middleton lives for maps. She has maps in her garage, maps in her living room, in the closets and on the walls, and in books and in big piles in her basement studio. Middleton is not a map maker, however. She is an artist, transforming old maps into art.
Middleton will have a large collection of her hand-painted historic maps displayed at the Blooming Grounds Coffee Shop and the Minnesota Marine Art Museum gift shop in Winona during the entire month of June 2015. Many maps will also be available for purchase.

Each map project begins with a search for a specific historic map — often the result of an inquiry. She cleans and refreshes the maps and has them professionally scanned as a black and white image by a dedicated printer.

Middleton then begins her creative effort. She stains the paper in a magical process she has developed over the past 10 years. Her map takes on the hues and wrinkles ... the character ... of a 150 year old map. Using watercolors, she then paints in the features. The artist has breathed ... and the map is suddenly as multi-faceted as an old, and treasured family member! One of her maps appeared last summer as an aging character in a music video when she produced several versions of a map to illustrate the passage of time.


“Maps create mood and atmosphere, just like any other piece of art,” she said last week. “But they come with a little something extra ... sensory interest, yes, but also intellectual interest and a meaningful sense of place. People have often told me that the maps have become part of their family story. I’m very honored by that.”

Middleton grew up in LaCrosse, Wis., along the Mississippi River. She started painting as a child, but it was her mother Pat, who owns a Great River Publishing and, who first encouraged her to paint maps after she was given a collection of old Mississippi River maps while in Louisiana.

“I always thought Lisa was a master of color,” her mom remembered. “She was working on colorful original abstracts at the time, and I asked her what she might be able to do with my historic maps. She had to work with a more mellow pallet, but the maps required beautiful blending, the ability to add depth and interest to make each map a work of art. I thought it was a magical transformation each time she sent me a finished map. Most of her first maps went to plantation great houses in the deep south.”

Middleton now makes her home in Montana, at the foot of Glacier National Park which she discovered at the age of 19 when she spent a summer as assistant manager of the Swiftcurrent Motor Inn Restaurant in the Many Glacier area of Glacier National Park.. She moved to Montana permanently about nine years ago where she now paints full time. 


“I fell in love with hiking,” she said. “And ran into a lot of bears.”

Middleton will be back on the Upper Mississippi River during the months of June and July attending a busy schedule of art shows and exhibits between Prairie du Chien and Stockholm. Her current collection includes many historic maps of Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota and Michigan. Her Wisconsin/Iowa Territory map (which includes today’s Minnesota and the Dakotas) is highly detailed and based in large part on a map by French map-maker and explorer J.N.Nicolet. Maps of the early Mississippi, both north and south form a fascinating look at river history seen through the eyes of contemporary long-ago explorers, settlers, and Indian nations.

In a sense, Middleton is doing more than making art, she’s helping to preserve history. 


“We’ll never have old maps like this again,” she said. “If I can breath a little new life into them today for someone who cares about those times, I’m happy.”

Middleton’s map paintings can be seen in La Crosse during RIVERFEST and in many other locations along the river, or online at

Her 2015 summer schedule on the Upper Mississippi River includes:

• June 8 to June 27, Blooming Grounds Coffee House, downtown Winona; all summer at the Minnesota Marine Art Museum gift shop.

• June 12-13, ARTSPIRE, La Crosse.

• June 18-21, Prairie Du Chien, RENDEZVOUS.

• June 29 Madison, Cash and Carry Wholesale,.

• July 1-31, Wine Guyz, La Crosse.

• July 2, 5:30-7 p.m., Artist Reception, Wine Guyz, La Crosse

•July 1-4, RIVERFEST grounds, La Crosse.


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