A Beautifully Painted New World, 50 Years In The Making

For a few minutes every day, 79-year-old Jerry Gretzinger has methodically plotted and hand-painted a map of a fictional world. Welcome to Ukrania.

J.R.R. Tolkien created Middle Earth and its native Elvish language. George R.R. Martin created Westeros. J.K. Rowling created if not a new country, a new magical layer of reality that slyly lived next to Great Britain’s Muggle world. And it’s an enticement of many religions that there is a beautiful afterlife of your own making, waiting for you.


With that in mind, consider this map created by 79-year-old Jerry Gretzinger. What began in 1963 as a doodle is now a large-scale, thoughtfully plotted, analog place, called Ukrania. And while Gretzinger isn’t a literary author pairing characters and plotlines to this new terrain, the work has a humble origin story, its creator’s circumstances not so different from that of many writers. As a college student, Gretzinger had a “really boring job” one summer in a ball-bearing factory.

“The very first map was a city, and it was kind of my interpretation of London, or a conflation of London and Paris,” he tells Co.Design. “At that point I was 20 years old, and I had never been to Europe. I had been into maps all my life. Maps always conjured up these romantic images for me, especially of European buildings.”

The city grew, and Gretzinger realized its inhabitants would need food. So he mapped out farmland. When they needed hospitals, schools, and post offices, he created them. To look at the Michigan-based artist’s meticulous work, you’d think he was a prolific urban planner. The hospitals, for example, aren’t just dropped in like building blocks. They’re designed with facilities meant to accommodate a specifically calculated nearby population. Ukrania has coordinates, and each new piece of charted territory is chosen by way of a mapping system Gretzinger devised with a deck of cards.

Over the years, the civilization expanded, one sheet of paper at a time. Today, the neverending piece clocks in at more than 2,800 sheets of hand-painted paper. Gretzinger has worked on the map for about 20 minutes a day, every day, except for a 20-year spell starting in 1983 when he put the project away in storage. But when his son recovered it two decades later, he resumed his work.

Imagine how much the world changed from 1983 to 2003. For the one visualized on the map, it meant things like high-speed monorails and hints at driverless cars. But for the one the real-life maker inhabited, it meant newer, faster methods of creation. “It was like magic when I started working on it in 2003. When I could make color copies and scan and make composite sheets, it was like a wonderland,” Gretzinger says. Plus, the advent of the Internet means that the map has a new cult following among the gaming set, particularly Minecraft and Dungeons and Dragons fans, even culminating in Gretzinger hosting a Reddit AMA last week.

If you have a spare 10 minutes and want to hear more about Gretzinger’s map, check out this video.

About the author

Margaret Rhodes is a former associate editor for Fast Company magazine.